(A preview of Volume 2 is now up on Soundcloud! Check it out here! The audiobook will be release July 14th!)
Selphids. The Bodysnatchers of Baleros. Parasitic, one of the most mysterious races in the world. And one of the most reviled, distrusted—
Well, not as bad as Demons. Not as bad at all. Selphids were still citizens. Just—you couldn’t trust them since they lived in dead bodies. They used to use live ones. Tyrants.
Almost as bad as half-Elves and their empires. Or those damn Minotaurs. And Humans. Don’t forget the Dragonwars and Drakes. Really, when you got down to it, though, Selphids were just unappealing. Of course, the Antinium were worse, but—
But Selphids were universally distrusted. It went beyond a simple interspecies conflict. There was something about Selphids—their malleable forms, the way they used host vessels that clashed with most other species’ sensibilities. Selphids were as alien as Antinium—no. Moreso.
Until now, Geneva Scala had viewed it as a kind of backwards prejudice. Until recently—she had seen Selphids as a people like any other. Full of good and bad.
Now, she thought differently. As a species—Selphids were people. But the [Doctor]’s thesis was this:
The nature of the way they controlled bodies meant that a relationship between host and Selphid was unequal. By the basic distribution of power, there could be no balance. And so—Selphids as a people were not inherently born or spawned evil. But the threat to their species, the way they interacted with their hosts, and their desperation made them poor overlords.
Or good ones. Geneva Scala straightened from another case of Yellow Rivers. She was tired. Her hand rose and wiped at a bead of sweat on her head before it could sting her eyes.
Geneva hadn’t done that. The hand produced some antiseptic; she washed her gloves.
The [Doctor] said it. Not Geneva. It was her voice, her distinct, brusque tone. A Lizardgirl hurried over.
“Water, Doctor Scala?”
“Once I’m out of my gear. I’m dehydrated. Water—a snack—this patient needs…”
Her voice trailed off. And Geneva Scala, who had been musing, feeling her body do all these things, waited another thirty seconds. When she spoke, it was softly.
“More liquids. More hydration; we can’t do more at this moment.”
She felt her head nod. The Lizardgirl bowed, and hurried off to get the electrolyte-solution that Geneva had worked up to replenish the loss of fluids the Yellow River’s fever and oozing discharge caused. Geneva Scala walked into the cleansing area and began to strip down.
“I have more patients to attend to.”
Geneva spoke to herself. She didn’t stop removing her gear—the resin-like armor that covered her from head-to-toe, preventing the spread of disease, or at least, slowing it. She heard a voice in her head.
“I know, Geneva. But remember—we have to take care of you. I’ll eat and drink for you if you want.”
“No thank you, Idis. I can do that myself.”
“Sure! Let me know if I can help, Geneva. Remember: you have to sleep in four hours!”
The Selphid cheerfully spoke up. And Geneva wondered if she’d have snapped at Okasha for doing less. No, certainly she would have. She missed Okasha. She regretted a lot of things. She was a prisoner, with a kindlier warden. But stricter rules. And that was a terrible thing. But worse—
Her patients were dying.
“What is the Yellow Rivers disease? I’m sorry if the topic of this broadcast becomes distasteful to our audience. If you’re troubled, I encourage you to tune in next time.”
The voice from the scrying orb echoed through The Wandering Inn as Mrsha and Numbtongue ate breakfast. Noass went on, shuffling his notes.
“However, we have to bring this disease to the attention of the public, as is our duty.”
He leaned forwards on one claw, addressing the screen, looking serious. Mrsha patted Numbtongue. The [Goblin Soulbard] nodded.
“We understand now, that there are tens of thousands of—of cases of infected peoples at most ports worldwide. It’s fair to say this disease has spread without warning or understanding across every continent! Its roots are in Baleros, and what we have next may shock you. We encourage children and those faint of heart to not look at the following scenes. This is an image of the disease—”
Numbtongue stopped eating. Mrsha’s hair stood up and she leapt off his head. She felt a gagging nausea in her stomach. Noass also should have said ‘people should not eat while watching’.
It was a public service announcement. The second in this world, if you counted the Golden Triangle thing. And Numbtongue was watching through The Wandering Inn’s brand new scrying orb, bought from Hedault at a discount. And regretting it.
“So, Liscor’s got lots of fish in the spring. And it has good cattle and stuff. But not much. So what’s it got?”
“The Shield Spiders reduced the availability of [Shepherds] and [Ranchers], Miss Solstice. The same with farming. I’m sorry to say that the city hasn’t been an agricultural hotspot for…a long time. The destruction of so many nests might change that, but we won’t be exporting for a long time.”
“Well, where do I get my food from, huh? They want food. Who’s got food?”
“I do. How much money are we talking here?”
A satisfied [Farmer]-[Pirate] smirked around. Erin, a Drake, and a flame-haired woman looked at him. The [Innkeeper] turned to Teliv again.
“Okay, Wailant’s got crops, but we need more [Farmers]. All these [Lords] want other stuff too. Ore. Uh…candles. Lots of stuff. Sugar.”
The [Negotiator] smoothed the spines on the back of his neck. Teliv glanced at Maviola, but the [Lady] had been rather quiet. Which relieved him. Erin Solstice looked justifiably confused and concerned; she had a trade deal, but nothing to trade.
Which obviously left the onus of power on the seller. Which was Liscor. Wailant was a complication, but Teliv’s voice grew silky as he began to leverage a Skill.
[First Reasonable Offer].
“Liscor’s Council has authorized me to negotiate on behalf of the city. We’re obviously interested in trade, but given the complexities of supplying Human [Lords], you must understand the prices will be higher, Miss Solstice. Nevertheless, we can do business.”
“And I have lots to sell. Let me just call up some of my [Farmers] and we can do a deal. Better than Liscor.”
Wailant interrupted, pushing the Drake to one side. The [Negotiator] blinked; but Strongheart was strong-arming him. Or attempting to.
“Excuse me, sir. I believe Liscor has a priority on this.”
Wailant blinked as the Drake moved him back. And Wailant was a big man. But you couldn’t just push a good [Negotiator] aside. Or even a mediocre one.
Erin chewed on her lip.
“I just dunno, guys. Getting food to the [Lords] is important. So—so Liscor has food and Celum, or Wailant, has food. If we put it through the inn’s door, that’s easy, right? Everyone makes money. The [Lords] pay for it, and we’re all happy? Right?”
Wailant and Teliv glanced at each other and tried not to smile. Teliv produced a contract he’d been sweating over just an hour ago.
“Actually, Miss Solstice, we could do a very reasonable contract. You’d earn money on each transport, and Liscor would take the burden of managing the shipping and rates.”
“Oh! So, like, I just get paid for people using my door and you set the prices?”
The [Innkeeper] brightened. Wailant opened his mouth—Teliv used his third Skill to silence the man.
“Exactly. No bother. Money for all.”
“Great! Let me just see the contract—”
Teliv handed her the quill and contract. Smiling, Erin regarded the contract. She raised the quill. Blinked.
“Oh, no ink. Too bad.”
“Let me just get that for—”
Wailant growled. Teliv fumbled for the inkpot. Erin smiled as he yanked the cork open.
She dipped the quill in ink. Then she wrote on the contract. Teliv practically snatched it back. He crowed.
“Thank you, Miss Solstice! You won’t regr—”
He stared at the contract. But instead of the signature, he saw, in large letters, ‘no thanks’ scrawled on the parchment. Erin smiled at him.
“Maviola, you were right. It is easy.”
The [Lady] looked pleased. She’d been worried when Erin picked up the quill. Now, though, the [Innkeeper] winked at her. She looked at Teliv.
“So I’d get four coppers per shipment? That means you could make one ‘shipment’ as big as you wanted and I get four coppers per each. No weight limit, no time limit. Also—that’s not very fair if it takes all the magic from my door. What if you put diamonds through the door, huh?”
“I—but—Miss Solstice, let me explain.”
Teliv’s good mood turned into sweat in a second. Erin Solstice was looking at him. And suddenly, her eager, somewhat befuddled manner turned sharp. His [Negotiator] senses were telling him…he was in trouble.
“I get it. And Wailant!”
“Yes, Erin? Let me just say that I’ll give you a far better deal on behalf of Celum. Far better.”
The [Farmer] was beaming at Teliv’s expense. Erin turned to him. She put her hands on her hips and looked up at the former-[Pirate].
“I’m sure you will. Why don’t you tell me what you had in mind?”
He opened his mouth and Erin pointed a finger at him.
“—And when you do, I’ll compare it with the deal each [Farmer] would have offered me. After all, I can just move the door to their farms, right? Who put you in charge?”
“Erin! We’re friends, aren’t we? I’m just here to make sure those Drakes don’t run off with the farm! So to speak. My contacts’ll be along shortly. But I’m here to—”
Maviola murmured. Erin saw Wailant’s eyes flicker. She sighed.
“Guys, guys. I don’t want this to be complicated.”
Wailant and Teliv brightened. Erin went on.
“But I do want this to be fair. Equitable! No one overcharges anyone else. Even if the [Lords] are…uh, [Lords], they’re hurting for money. So no one’s doubling their prices and we’re not having huge taxes or anything. Here’s what I had in mind…”
She handed over a folded piece of paper she and Maviola had been working on. Wailant and Teliv jostled to see. They began to raise objections at once. Erin put her hands on her hips.
Another day. In the background, the negotiations were taking place. But that was background. Mrsha tugged Lyonette over, pointing.
“What is it, Mrsha? I’m trying to listen to the trade deal. Oh, pox!”
Lyonette recoiled at the images on screen. Numbtongue was making a face and gagging. Lyonette covered her mouth. The view switched back to Noass, who was looking pale. He dabbed at his nose with a handkerchief.
“Appalling images, dear viewers. However, [Healers] across the world are attempting to combat this illness. We’re going now to an interview with Pallass’ own top [Healer]. Sir Relz is conducting the interview. Sir Relz?”
The image shifted. Now, Sir Relz stood, holding a little speaking stone with one claw. He was half-turned towards a nervous Gnoll. She jumped.
“…And we’re ready. Healer Demerra, you are now on broadcast. Can you tell us about your take on this disease? Pallass has reported six cases, but I understand there are over a thousand in Zeres; mainly from ships. It appears the Yellow Rivers illness—I hesitate to call it a plague—isn’t spread solely via, er, intercourse. How can we stop it? Can it be healed?”
A hand came down on the scrying orb. Both Mrsha and Numbtongue protested, but the [Princess] glowered as she lifted the orb.
“Dreadful. Mrsha, you shouldn’t watch this.”
Mrsha protested. She was big enough! She just wanted to show Lyonette the nasty yellow disease! Sir Relz was listening to Demerra’s explanation as the Gnoll stared into the scrying orb.
“But Lyonette, it’s important! If Pallass has the disease, Liscor might too! We want to watch! Please?”
The pleading didn’t come from Mrsha. Rather, it came from Drassi, who’d been watching for gossip material as she served drinks. Lyonette hesitated, then sighed.
“Numbtongue, if it gets…if it’s unsuitable, you turn it off. Got it?”
The Hobgoblin craned his neck around the orb as Lyonette put it back. Mrsha, Drassi, and Numbtongue crowded around; a few other patrons of the inn were watching as well.
“Discount for Octavia? I don’t have to—”
Wailant roared from the table where he was negotiating. Erin argued back. Mrsha threw a wadded up cloth napkin at them so they’d shut up. Everyone else leaned closer as the broadcast continued.
“—believe I have a cure. I’ve treated cases of this Yellow Rivers disease, and while it may be spreading, my magical crystals have reversed the illness’ effects in my patients.”
The Gnoll, Demerra, was brandishing a crystal and explaining the homeopathic effects and benefits. Sir Relz was nodding as she went on.
“I believe a crystal will enhance the body’s natural capabilities, preventing or at least decreasing the likelihood of catching this illness. I am selling them, and Salazsar and Fissival both export high-quality crystals. Moreover, my healing beds have also cured three of the sick people and they are completely healthy.”
The Drake sighed in relief and adjusted his monocle.
“There you have it, folks. That’s our [Healer]’s response. Back to you, Noass.”
“Thank you, Sir Relz! Now, we’ll be going to interviewing some survivors and getting takes from around the world on the issue. First—”
Geneva Scala nearly smashed the scrying orb. Only Idis stopped her—and Paige.
“Geneva! We spent too much on it! Calm down!”
The [Doctor] stared at her shaking hand. Idis didn’t stop her tongue, though.
“Homeopathic crystals? Those don’t stop the disease! They might fight off the bacteria, but it’s airborne. It’s mutated! How many people can afford a bed of those crystals, anyways? What about quarantine? What about the ‘cured’ carriers who could be spreading the disease?”
What made her so furious was that the Gnoll was half-right. In this world healing crystals were real and they worked. But her solution wasn’t scalable. Geneva had been corresponding with other [Healers] who used healing crystals among other solutions and a bed of them would supercharge the immune system like a number of Skills, including Geneva’s own, which would halt the bacteria’s advance and give the body time to recover.
However. So many people were falling sick that unless the price of healing crystals dropped by about 83%, it wouldn’t be feasible to treat people.
“At least they’re talking about it, Geneva. Half the cities you were reaching out to were denying there was even a pandemic.”
Siri sat at the table, appraising the situation. As the [Doctor] cooled down, she still glowered at the images in the orb.
“This is worse, though. People will be buying the crystals, taking away from [Healers] who need them. And—they’ll assume they’re safe! They need to be corrected. Let me talk to—”
The voice rang out in Geneva’s head. Idis’ bright, cheerful tone. Geneva’s voice cut off. And she heard and felt her words change.
“—nevermind. It’s too risky.”
Paige blinked. But she nodded, relieved.
“We discussed that, Geneva. The broadcast is going through Wistram.”
Geneva nodded tightly. It was even how she’d have reacted.
“I know. I got overworked. Forget about it.”
She hadn’t said that. Idis spoke into Geneva’s head, a buzzing, tiny voice in her ears.
“Sorry, Geneva. Calectus told you, we can’t risk word about you getting out.”
She’d overridden Geneva’s vocal chords and play-acted as her. The others, who’d been sitting around the table hadn’t even noticed.
“Geneva, even if these treatments do not…work perfectly. Surely the fact that there are multiple ways to treat the disease is good, right?”
Ken spoke up. The meeting of the United Nations company was here to address this very issue. Geneva rubbed tiredly at her face. Not from physical exhaustion; she’d gotten nine hours of sleep thanks to Idis. As she had for the last week. But she was mentally tired. Stressed out.
“—It is, Ken. The Yellow Rivers disease isn’t as bad as it could be. It’s bacterial, not viral, the mortality rate if treated isn’t high. But it requires supervision; the disease provokes fevers, diarrhea—all killers in places with insufficient access to clean water and medical treatment. The worst problem is how fast it spread and how long it takes to recover from. Take Aiko, for instance.”
The others nodded. Aiko was one of the [Nurses] working under Geneva who’d contracted the disease. Ken looked concerned, but she was in a dedicated wing of the company building now quarantined. And she was…fine.
Well, not fine fine. She was running a fever, but Geneva had three massive citrines sitting around her and the other patients which a [Healer] had sent. They had kept the fever down and Aiko was recovering faster. If Geneva could buy more crystals, she would.
“—Talenqual already has more patients than I can handle, Ken. And the clinic can’t even keep up with the serious cases.”
“Even with the expansion?”
That came from Luan. He had a bandage over his head and a scowl on his face; he’d been attacked when he’d done his last delivery. The bounty on his head was still extant. Geneva shook her head.
“The Selphids, [Nurses], and volunteers…still can’t keep up with an influx of thousands, Luan. Especially when it takes weeks per infected person.”
Now, she had resources. Volunteers had come in from other cities. And The Bodies of Fellden, a small but elite company of Selphids had entered the city for the express purpose of helping Geneva and learning from her.
And safeguarding her to make sure she could help them. But no one knew that. ‘Okasha’ and Geneva had pretended to be pleased with the situation.
“The issue is getting a cure, Luan. If we have that, then we can scale up treatment and speed recovery. Without it—the rate of infection will surpass any attempt at a cure. Already, people are dying for lack of treatment. If I was overseeing a major city, I would order a quarantine while I searched for a cure.”
“…And if you didn’t have it?”
Daly. Geneva looked at him. She shook her head slowly. It was tense between them. Or so the others seemed to believe. But Geneva’s issues with Daly seemed ages ago. If she could have told him about Idis—she would.
“If I didn’t have a cure, Daly, I would hold the quarantine because there is no other option. And I would advise the leaders of the city to expect a 20% mortality rate.”
The table fell silent. Geneva inhaled, exhaled, slowly. She felt too calm. Or rather; Idis was keeping her heart from pounding, her body from flooding with stressful hormones and adrenaline, cortisol, etc.
“I’m sorry, Geneva. No one’s found anything yet. And we have [Healers] and [Alchemists]—even [Herbalists] and [Explorers] looking for it.”
Ken spoke up apologetically. Geneva shook her head.
“I…know you’re trying, Ken. I appreciate it.”
“I just can’t believe this world doesn’t have a general antibiotic.”
Paige muttered distractedly, turning down the volume on the scrying orb but letting it run. Geneva saw it flickering to a Human, speaking to a [Mage]. She shook her head.
“My theory is that it was never necessary, Paige. The Yellow Rivers disease—or even a magical virus—would never hurt the wealthy significantly. There are healing potions capable of purging even infection. Some can regrow limbs. I’ve talked with [Alchemists] and there are apparently potions that can reverse aging. But they’re rare.”
Daly muttered. Geneva sighed.
“…In the same way, high-level Skills or that Gnoll [Healer] can cure someone who has enough money. It’s just not a solution for people without money.”
“Supply and demand at its finest. Now here we are, with the world’s best [Doctor] and everyone turning to you when a month ago they didn’t give you the time of day. Geneva, anything we can do…”
Luan trailed off. The [Doctor]’s lips twitched.
“Get me more healing crystals. Beyond that? Keep asking about penicillin-equivalents. Thank you for your time. But there’s nothing more I can do. I cede the floor.”
She sat down. She felt herself relax.
“Good job, Geneva. We’re all here to help!”
The cheery voice in her head was Idis again. Geneva even felt better. She pinched her arm.
Stop that. Idis stopped releasing whatever she was doing into Geneva’s bloodstream.
“My turn, I guess. I’ve uh, tried to get in contact with Joseph. We sent a coded [Message], but I don’t think he got it. My guess is that he’s gotten a lot of fanmail. And I can’t be more overt since Wistram apparently controls [Messages] too.”
Paige raised her hand and stood. Geneva listened; they knew Joseph, the boy who’d been playing soccer, was from Earth. Or at least, everyone assumed so. Daly grimaced.
“Can’t we hire a Courier or something, Luan?”
The South African man shrugged.
“Sure. How much gold do you have, Daly? We still need to send a [Message] unless you want to hire someone from Baleros. And you don’t have that much money. Plus, if we ask a Courier, people will want to know what’s so secret.”
Daly leaned back in his chair and nearly went over. Ken smiled around, but looking exasperated.
“It is almost like being secretive is hard.”
Everyone laughed at that, which was what he’d intended. Paige fiddled with a pencil she’d made; superior to quills or charcoal sticks for notes.
“Well, I did some digging and I have more people on the list. Rémi Canada, the Singer of Terandria—both safe bets are from Earth.”
“Whoa. I’ve heard of the Singer. Can we get in touch with them?”
The others sat up. Geneva heard a small voice in her head.
Unconsciously, Geneva bit her tongue. Hard. But she felt her jaws unclench. And the voice from Idis again.
“Don’t be nervous, Geneva! Calectus won’t tell! We’re on your side, remember?”
There was a spy in this room. And it was Geneva herself. She wished she could write a message on a piece of paper, or tell the others in a coded fashion somehow. But how did you outwit someone in your body?
A code. Using a cipher, and fake references from home, Geneva had constructed a logical conversation to use with Ken.
‘Hey Ken, remember how Pearl Harbor was the start of the Japan-American alliance?’ And then using that fallacy, mention ‘Okasha’ to tip him off that she wasn’t Okasha. Either that, or waiting for Idis to fall asleep and write a secret note. Or…
The problem wasn’t revealing Idis. The problem was that you couldn’t get the Selphids out of Geneva, even if you knew about her. And there were over two hundred Selphids in Talenqual, all powerful. They were better allies than not. So Geneva sat, and listened. And when it was over—she said goodbye to the others. And then Idis went to report to Calectus.
“Dancing Serpent to Fast Hooves, come in. The Lantern has left the building. Repeat—”
A Lizardgirl stared at the [Doctor] as she walked out of the United Nations headquarters and walked down the street. She whispered urgently into a speaking stone. An aggravated sigh was her response.
“Fast Hooves, come in.”
“Umina, I’m not doing that. If our speaking stones are compromised, we’re already identified. Stop calling me nicknames.”
“Marian, come on.”
The Lizardgirl [Strategist]’s voice was disappointed. She heard the clip-clop of hooves as Marian paced back and forth somewhere.
“Where’s she going? Geneva, that is.”
“Um…looks like the same place as last time. The Selphids.”
“Hm. I see.”
Umina followed Geneva at a distance, blending into the crowds of Lizardfolk in Talenqual. Although…there weren’t as many crowds.
They avoided each other, walking in smaller groups. The friendly Lizardfolk didn’t even stop to chat. They were nervous.
The Yellow Rivers disease ran through Talenqual. By this point, even the Flying Brigade had stopped downplaying it. The city was quarantining. But more and more people were sick by the day. Umina, working undercover in Geneva’s clinic, had heard the reports.
“No wonder the Professor wanted us here, Marian. Geneva’s the only person who seems to understand this…bacteria? She’s even got a name for it.”
“Sounds like it. Did you catch the broadcast from Pallass?”
“I did. It goes against everything Geneva’s been saying.”
Umina saw Geneva turn left. She eyed the [Doctor]. Umina was a big fan of listening and understanding before making a move. In the Professor’s class, it had earned her a reputation for timidity. But now, she thought it was entirely appropriate.
“What are Cameral and Kissilt doing, do you know?”
“Training as adventurers in the Bushrangers group. They’re ingratiating themselves with…let me check my notes. Daly?”
“That’s right. I think they’re going about it the wrong way.”
Marian’s voice was conversational as she kept walking somewhere.
“I dunno. Kissilt is rather impressed with their leader. He says Daly has a different understanding of battle than most.”
“Marian! Are you talking with Kissilt?”
“Yup. Don’t shout, Umina. We’re sharing information.”
“This is our mission!”
The Lizardgirl howled into the speaking stone. She saw Geneva walking up to the place the Selphids had rented. Now—Umina stopped. There were Selphids guarding the door, and they looked sharp. She saw them wave Geneva in, instantly.
“Lantern has entered the Dead Zone.”
“…So she walked in the front door? I saw it too, Umina. I’m right here.”
Umina jumped. She looked around and saw a Centauress waving at her.
“Mariaaaan. We’re supposed to be split up!”
The Lizardgirl complained as the two joined up. Marian sighed.
“Umina, this isn’t cloak-and-dagger stuff. We might as well make Miss Geneva our offer and be done with it. The other companies want her, the Professor wants her. That’s all there is to it.”
“But he sent us because no one’s aware of her full value yet, Marian. And the more I see of her, the more I’m convinced she’s got more to hide than even the Professor knows. Maybe he suspects, but did you think she had ties to the Selphids? The Bodies of Fellden are serious strength!”
Marian scratched at her mane of hair.
“…That’s true. They’re supposed to be a Selphid-only company. If they came to help her, she must be in with them. I wonder why?”
“No clue. I wish Yerra—”
The two broke off. Umina stared at the street. Marian cleared her throat after a second.
“…What else do you notice, Umina?”
The Lizardgirl snuffled. She wiped at her nostrils. Then she looked up.
“She speaks of things no [Healer] does. I asked, and none of them know about bacterias. Or—half the things she talks about. She’s knowledgeable, Marian. But who taught her? Is it a [Doctor] thing?”
The Centaur [Strategist] was nodding. Umina stared at the Selphids on duty.
“And lastly…why is she so fit?”
That made Marian snort.
“Umina. I’m fit.”
“Yes. But you exercise. You’re a [Strategist] with [Ranger] levels, Marian.”
The Lizardgirl poked her friend’s side. She looked at the door that Geneva had gone through with narrowed eyes.
“Miss Geneva never exercises that I see her. So why does she have muscles?”
Marian gave Umina a blank look.
“Maybe she exercises outside of the times you see her, Umina? Not everything has a secret explanation.”
Niers Astoragon lost a chess game.
To be fair, it was a difficult battle. He was renowned as the best player of the game in the world to most people’s knowledge. And the best player in the world couldn’t be beaten by an amateur, even on his worst day.
His opponent was good. But Perorn Fleethoof, famed [Strategist] in her own right, couldn’t help but feel that it was a weak victory. Not that she hadn’t tried.
But his game had been off. The Titan still applauded her. He smiled, laughed, and wasn’t put out by his defeat.
“Well done, Perorn! I have to admit, that strategy doesn’t work too well in every situation, does it?”
“It was far too aggressive.”
The Centauress nodded. They sat over the chess board. Both were advocates of the game. But Perorn couldn’t help but notice how oddly Niers had played.
“Even for you, that felt like you pushed far too much, Niers. What possessed you?”
“Oh—I was actually copying a style from a game I’d seen. A…tiebreaker match. The winning side used this.”
The Fraerling looked smug, for some reason. Despite his loss. And he hated losing. Perorn raised one eyebrow.
“Your mysterious opponent?”
The Fraerling fumbled one of the tiny pieces on the board. It was a compromise between their heights. The pieces were huge for him—miniscule for Perorn. He glanced up at her, and she snorted.
“Forget about it, Niers. Everyone knows about your ‘mysterious opponent’. I know you two communicate somehow. So, what was it?”
The Titan pursed his lips, but then reclined in his chair.
“A splendid five games, Perorn. Well, I say five, but those were the only wins and losses. It was draws the entire way down. But the final game was this. A tiebreaker.”
“And the winner was…?”
“Let’s just say it was unexpected. S—they pushed in hard, and their opponent was taken aback by the aggressive play. I tried to recreate it here after seeing the copy of the games, but it obviously didn’t work. It was more of a psychological victory than anything else, I’m given to understand. But that’s the indication of a master.”
The tiny [Strategist] indicated the board. Perorn eyed him. The old Fraerling looked happy. And she…
Didn’t like it. The Centauress reset her side after a moment.
“Well, you’re in a good mood about it. I wish you weren’t.”
“Thank you, Perorn? Are my good moods that abhorrent to you?”
The Titan of Baleros frowned up at the Centaur. She was resting on some pillows; he was sitting on the table they were playing on in his rooms. She looked down at him.
“Frankly? Yes. You do better when you’re in a bad mood, Niers. I’ve seen you win battles when you’re spitting fire. When you’re in a good mood, you make mistakes.”
He frowned, drumming his fingers on the armrest of his chair.
“And the proof of that?”
“I just beat you.”
“That was a one-time thing. I was recreating a style. Let’s play again.”
“As you wish.”
Perorn eyed the Titan. His good mood didn’t abate, despite her words. She sensed it.
Something was up. He’d been humming, praising his students in class—and he was making plans in secret. Foliana, Perorn, Peclir—all of the senior members of the Forgotten Wing Company suspected something. But what…well, she thought she knew.
He had figured out who his mysterious partner was. And that person was—female. She sighed.
“About this business with the Last Light of Baleros.”
Niers jumped. He nearly knocked over a pawn as he moved it. He stared at her, suspiciously.
“Niers. You know I’d find out. You sent Kissilt, Cameral, Umina…do you think I wouldn’t have noticed them missing from classes? This wasn’t subtle. So I looked into them. Why is a Selphid company in Talenqual?”
“They are? Wait—damn. I should have reports on that!”
The Titan blinked. He sprang to his feet. Perorn saw him stride over to the cabinet of neatly-filed reports. He found the folder he wanted in a moment, opened it. She heard him swearing.
And she got more nervous.
“Something the matter?”
“I…don’t know why they’re there. Damn. I didn’t notice that, Perorn. I’ve been occupied.”
“I know. Why are you recalling six senior [Strategists] from their posts?”
The Titan evaded the question.
“It’s time to see if their replacements can handle the situation. I just need some brainpower. You’ll see. The Bodies of Felldan? That’s not right. Only the Minds would order them anywhere. Why would they…? Damn, damn, damn. I need to do something about that.”
The Centaur saw Niers think. He moved a piece forwards and she stole a knight.
The two of them stared at the dead piece. That was just a mistake. Perorn slowly took it off the board. She knew Niers well enough to know from the expression flashing across his face for a microsecond that it hadn’t been some ploy. He’d just not noticed the move.
“Is everything alright, Niers?”
“Fine, Perorn. I just have things to deal with. It’s an off-day for me. Soon, it will be dealt with.”
He waved it off. Perorn looked at him. The Titan’s expression was faraway. Not on the documents. Or on the game. He moved a piece.
“I shall be announcing something soon, Perorn. Something I’ve been meaning to do. It’s…well, you’ll see.”
That was all the Titan said. But it worried her. Because he looked…happy. And the Titan of Baleros was so seldom that. She feared not his happiness; she wanted that for her friend. But she felt like…
He lost two more games after that.
Selphids and Selphids and Selphids, oh my. Geneva Scala saw them speaking. She felt her lips moving. But she heard nothing.
Idis was giving a report. Or rather, she had given that. Geneva had heard her speaking to Calectus and the other senior Selphids. But their debate Geneva wasn’t part of.
Of course, Idis wasn’t an…[Inner Friend]. Yet. If she had the class, she didn’t have Okasha’s box to put Geneva in. But that hardly mattered.
“—decided, then. Idis will make it so. Geneva Scala?”
The [Doctor] felt Idis cede control to her in an instant. It was like…being able to scratch her nose after feeling it itch for a long time. Only, Idis would scratch Geneva’s nose anyways since they were connected.
Now, the [Doctor] looked at a friend. Or a former friend. Had he ever been a friend?
The Selphid [Honor Guard] nodded to her. The other Selphids were leaving the room.
“I apologize for the necessity, Geneva. Some discussions you cannot be privy to at this moment.”
“I see. Will that ever change?”
Calectus’ expression didn’t change. But then, Selphids could control any body perfectly. The experienced ones, at any rate. He dipped his head.
“We hope so, Geneva. But we must be cautious. The fate of Selphids everywhere may hang on our decisions. We are…not trusted as a species.”
Geneva resisted the urge to ask if how they dealt with her wasn’t an example of why the distrust existed to begin with. The Selphid, controlling his Dullahan body, turned his head slightly; it was disconnected so it turned nearly one hundred and eighty degrees. He shifted it forwards again, sighing.
“The…situation is somewhat tenuous. We understand there are other people from Earth in other parts of the world.”
“What will you do with them?”
He shook his head.
“Nothing. We are not interested in collecting anyone. If Wistram is—that is a decision for the Minds to address.”
The Minds. A governing body of Selphids, according to Idis. Geneva nodded slowly.
“So. Anything else? What were you discussing?”
“How to help your cause, Geneva Scala.”
She blinked. Calectus went on.
“We are here to help you, as I said. We will contribute funds to research for your cure. And as I said, Idis will help you make contact.”
“Contact? Contact with whom?”
“Other Selphids! You can count on me, Calectus! I’ll get Geneva anything she needs. All I need is a dedicated [Mage]. You know, to send [Message] or [Speak] spells?”
Idis saluted brightly with Geneva’s hand and smiled with her face. Calectus looked at her sharply.
The Selphid released her control at once. Calectus frowned.
“Idis, you have strict orders. Do not take over Geneva’s body without her consent.”
“Sorry. I just—”
The Selphid’s eager voice turned meek in an instant. Calectus glanced at Geneva.
“Geneva, do you have any issue with Idis so far? She remarks that she has been enforcing a sleep schedule. Idis will desist.”
“Idis. You will be replaced.”
Instantly, the Selphid shut up. Geneva blinked. That was…new.
“Calectus, I assumed Idis insisting on me sleeping regularly was at your behest.”
His eyes didn’t move. But Geneva sensed a flicker of apprehension through Idis.
“It was not. Idis is here to protect you, Geneva. She replaced Okasha, but she is not your keeper. If she is upsetting you, she will be replaced and punished. She was the most suitable for the role of bodyguard. However…”
“Oh no. Please don’t!”
Idis whispered in Geneva’s ears. The [Doctor] blinked. Interesting. She chose her next words carefully.
“I…wasn’t aware of that. I thought Idis was managing me.”
“If she has been too forceful—”
“…No. She hasn’t. She’s been eager, but I don’t mind her.”
“Thank you! I’m so sorry—”
Idis was audibly relieved. Calectus stared at Geneva again, and then blinked. He nodded and smiled slightly, but his expression was still stiff.
“If you have any concerns, please ask. I will check regularly. And of course—if Idis misbehaves in any way, she will be removed.”
It was a warning, but not just for Geneva. Idis shuddered; Geneva felt a gentle spasm in her nerves. And she thought of the other Selphid, before Idis.
“How is Okasha doing? May I speak with her?”
“…That would not be wise. She is being held.”
“Not punished? Calectus, you know I am a [Doctor]. I’ve sworn not to harm anyone. Or let anyone come to harm. That means your people and Okasha—”
“She is only being held. But since she may have influence over you via Skills, we will not allow you to communicate, Geneva. That is all.”
The [Honor Guard] was firm. Geneva decided to drop it.
“Well then. Thank you, Calectus. I’m doing my best, but diseases are difficult. I need those antibiotics. It will help me and the world. Idis has been helpful, as has your support and the Selphid [Nurses].”
They were [Healers], or younger Selphids who had been given to her to study. No doubt the Selphids wanted more Genevas. Calectus nodded. Geneva went on.
“…But the truth is I’m lacking materials. Things from…my world. Medicines.”
“Whatever we can do, we will do, Geneva. You have but to ask. Idis now has the authority to connect you with other Selphids. We are not as powerful as major nations, but Selphids do have our influence. We hope you will level or gain what you need to overcome this illness. Idis, I leave you to aid Geneva as you know the best role for her. Do not overstep.”
“We really do want you to just level. And then cure us. I’m sorry, Geneva. I’m overeager. Please don’t be mad! This—your body is just so much fun!”
Idis whispered in Geneva’s ear. As Calectus bid farewell to her, Geneva was left sitting. The [Doctor]’s eyes flickered to the door. Then she and Idis were alone.
Apparently alone. But she was always with Idis. The [Doctor] thought carefully.
“…I’m aware you’re eager, Idis. It isn’t fun for me, though. I have a job to do. And my experience with Okasha was…troubled.”
“I know! And I am sorry about that! But I’m just here to help! Forget sleep! Let’s go all night long! You just ask and I can do it. Just don’t replace me?”
“Why were you assigned to me over all the others, Idis?”
“Um. Because I’m really good at killing people?”
Geneva shuddered. Idis went on, hurriedly.
“The Minds were just worried about your safety! Plus, they thought someone with a lot of muscular control like me would be best. [Blademaster], remember? And [Barbarian]. That’s in case you needed to be really strong.”
“I see. Well, Idis. You haven’t given me cause to complain. In fact, I’m actually grateful about you making me sleep. That’s a—a fault of mine.”
And the young Selphid smiled with Geneva’s lips. The [Doctor] nodded. And she went on, carefully.
“I’ll have to rely on you, Idis. What was Calectus saying about contacts?”
“Oh, that. That means that we’re spreading word looking for your antibiotic and stuff. The mold? A lot of high-ranking Selphids will get word. All over the world!”
“Really? Just like that?”
Geneva blinked. Idis laughed with her voice.
“Of course! Selphids obey the Minds! It’s—we work together, Geneva. We have to. You know how Selphids won’t ever fight each other in battle, even if they’ve been hired? There are too few of us to not be on the same side.”
“I see. You know, there’s so much I don’t know about Selphids, Idis. Oh—and if we’re alone, why don’t you use my voice?”
“Really? Thanks, Geneva! I like having working vocal chords. You wouldn’t believe how rotten dead ones get.”
It was Geneva’s turn to smile.
“I can only imagine. But we’re sharing a body, Idis. If I make you uncomfortable, why don’t you let me know?”
“Sure! But I’m really happy. I mean, I get to taste, do all kinds of fun stuff—everything’s so real in a living body. Even better than the freshest dead ones!”
The Selphid was happy. Geneva nodded.
“So…you’ll be contacting other Selphids about my antibiotics? Is there anything else Calectus has authorized you to do? I mean, us?”
She was channeling…Okasha. Only, backwards. Idis had to think and Geneva suspected she was doing the Selphid equivalent of scratching her head; she wiggled about for a moment.
“Um. Um—well, if you wanted a Selphid to do something, I could get it. Like…do you need rubies or something? We could get them from Salazsar, or ask an adventurer-Selphid or a [Miner] to get some. Stuff like that.”
“Yup. It’s a lot of authority, but Calectus really trusts you, you know. We want to be your allies.”
Geneva Scala had an idea. She leaned back in her chair. The [Doctor] inhaled. And decided to take a risk. Idis knew more than Geneva would have wanted her to know. But if the Selphids were uneasy allies—she might as well use that.
“Interesting. In that case, Idis? Could you do me a favor?”
She spoke. Idis listened. Then she took Geneva’s body, at the [Doctor]’s request, vaulted out of the chair, and ran out of the Selphid’s headquarters.
Idis ran. Geneva felt the Selphid laughing with delight as she raced down the street, using her Skills to move faster than Geneva thought was possible. She blew so fast past Umina and Marian that the two [Strategists] were left in her dust.
Of course, that wasn’t the request. It was just to make Geneva move around faster and give Idis control for a moment, which made the Selphid happy. And while she ran…
The [Doctor] was thinking.
The interesting thing about Selphids was this: they were always on the same side. Even when they were enemies—they didn’t kill each other.
Mainly because they had to be on the same side when the world hated them. Selphids killing Selphids was rare. In their community, even far from home, a Selphid would aid another Selphid. And there were also ranks, authority by seniority. Secrets shared only among their people.
In practice, it meant that a Selphid was an older…Selphid to others. ‘Older brother’ or ‘older sister’ being the wrong term usually since gender wasn’t applicable to Selphids. Mostly.
Some preferred one body or another. But the body influenced the Selphid, along with species. For instance, Ulinde thought of herself as female today because she was wearing a female Drake’s body. But she would be male when she wore one of the male forms in storage.
And it was looking more important for her to be male more often than not. Because she and Jelaqua were sharing from a pool of corpses and Jelaqua was…female.
An older sister, then. She and Maughin were a couple, and because the Dullahan preferred Jelaqua’s female bodies, the Selphid had started wearing them exclusively. Ulinde, as her junior, tried to make Jelaqua’s life easier.
After all, they were both part of the same team. And Ulinde admired Jelaqua. She was in awe of her heroes, the Halfseekers. She was also, in no small way, terrified of making Jelaqua angry at her again.
Selphids didn’t kill Selphids. But Ulinde had learned that you didn’t have to die to regret crossing another Selphid. Sometimes she still shuddered at the one confrontation they’d had.
“But I deserved that. And now I’m a Halfseeker. Me.”
The Selphid smiled into a mirror. Her lips twitched and spasmed. She sighed, and with her interior body, found a ripped bit of muscle.
“Darn. The muscle’s wearing out.”
She sighed. Corpses always wore down. But this Drake’s body was far from rotten, so she lived with it. She went downstairs after carefully applying some of the preservative gel that prevented body odors from leaking out and active decay.
“Good morning, Jelaqua! Morning, Moore, morning, Seborn!”
The youngest member of the Halfseekers bounded down the stairs into the inn in Pallass. The other Halfseekers looked up. Jelaqua waved lazily, Seborn grunted, and Moore smiled.
“Hello, Ulinde. How was your sleep?”
“Great, thanks! Jelaqua, what’re we doing today? I’m ready to go adventuring!”
The [Spellslinger] bounced up and down. Jelaqua yawned.
“Eat something first, Ulinde! I’m tired. Seborn, what’s our plan?”
“We’re between jobs. Again. Because someone keeps going on dates rather than finding us work.”
The [Rogue] snapped. He was grumpy without his morning tea-and-rum. It came via Garuda [Waitress] along with food for the others.
This was not The Wandering Inn. It was simply expedient; easier to be in Pallass rather than having to use Erin’s door. And the inn was nice, even to Selphids. It was run by a Dullahan, who knew and respected Maughin and was familiar with Selphids from Baleros.
“Hey, I looked, Seborn. I didn’t see anything great. We’ll take a mission today. After breakfast. Uh—who wants my breakfast? I ate at Maughin’s.”
Seborn sighed. But Moore accepted Jelaqua’s portion and chowed down on his extra-large plate. Ulinde helped herself to breakfast—or tried to. She noticed Moore staring.
“Ulinde. Your jaw is…”
The Selphid’s jaw was only opening on her right side. Ulinde sighed.
“My jaw muscle’s all deteriorated. Jelaqua, do you know a fix?”
“Let me see. Damn, looks all torn up.”
The older Selphid got up to inspect Ulinde’s body. A bit of her real form reached out through the air and inspected the deteriorated skin. The Garuda [Waitress] shuddered as she brought over a drink.
Ulinde’s smile faded as she heard the word in the air. She didn’t see who it was. Seborn looked around, and Moore’s expression turned clouded.
But none of the Halfseekers said anything. They were used to it. Jelaqua affected not to hear. She slapped Ulinde on the back.
“I think we need a string fix. We can find a small bit, tie those two muscles together. It won’t last long, but I have a spool of thread in my room. We’ll do it after breakfast.”
The [Iron Tempest] winked at Ulinde. It was like having a teacher and big sister who was also your friend. Ulinde helped herself to breakfast—spicy chicken eggs. There was a breed of chickens raised on magical peppers who laid delicious eggs. Selphids loved spice; their taste buds deteriorated too fast in most bodies for the subtleties of taste.
Things had changed a lot for Ulinde. She had gone with Montressa to deliver justice and find people from Earth. Now—she was a member of the team she’d idolized. Isceil was…dead. The team was split up.
Some things remained, though. Ulinde was still a member of Wistram, even if she was now a Halfseeker. She had loyalty to her academy, which was why she hadn’t told Jelaqua all about Montressa’s mission. She’d debated it, but Jelaqua didn’t need to know. The Minds on Baleros on the other hand? Well…wiser Selphids than her would make that choice in Wistram.
But today, as Jelaqua and Ulinde went upstairs and the Selphid used a tiny bit of string to connect the rotten muscle so she could move her jaw properly, her duties were brought up again. Ulinde sat up and raised a finger to her temple.
“Incoming [Message]. I—oh. Oh. Oh wow. Jelaqua! Big sis, you want to hear this.”
Jelaqua sat back on her haunches; she was wearing a Gnoll’s body.
“What’s up, Ulinde?”
The [Spellslinger] was trying to process the information being thrown at her. She gasped.
“It’s from the Minds. No—their agents!”
Jelaqua’s eyes sharpened. The Minds? They were the authority of Selphids. When they gave an order, any Selphid who was…a proper Selphid obeyed.
“What do they want with us?”
“I—oh wow. Jelaqua. They’ve got someone from Earth.”
The word had never been mentioned between Jelaqua and Ulinde. But the other Selphid wasn’t completely surprised to hear it. Jelaqua’s eyes narrowed.
“What did you just say?”
It took some explaining. And admitting about Wistram’s knowledge of Selphids. Jelaqua and Ulinde sat together in a single body.
A Raskghar’s; it was the most spacious. Since they were both adult Selphids, they could both occupy the body. They had to squeeze a bit to fit in this one, but it worked. And their conversation was inaudible, even to Gnoll ears. Selphid secrets were good secrets.
It was hard to imagine for non-Selphids how they spoke. Or interacted. There were…parallels.
“Jelaqua, I’m sorry I didn’t tell you! But I had to be loyal to the academy!”
Ulinde whined. She shied back from Jelaqua, down the spinal column. The other Selphid pursued, although her body and Ulinde’s were meeting across the stomach, spine, down the left hand—she reached out and smacked Ulinde. Well, the Selphid equivalent.
“You idiot! So that’s why you were all there! I should’ve known! You should have told us.”
“But Jelaqua…wait, how did you know?”
“We knew about Earth! Or rather…Seborn did. Moore picked up some stuff with Mrsha. We have ears. And Erin’s not exactly a secret person. But tell us everything.”
Ulinde did. Jelaqua contracted on herself in shock.
“No way. Another planet? We thought it was another dimension! A gateway. Erin and the others?”
“That’s right. The Minds must not know, though. Jelaqua, I have orders from an ‘Idis’ to get us in touch with Joseph.”
“That kid with the soccer ball? Why?”
“They know he’s from Earth.”
Jelaqua went still. She was thinking hard.
“…So they have no idea about Erin?”
“None. Should I tell them—?”
Jelaqua’s voice echoed throughout the body. Ulinde flinched. She didn’t ‘see’ Jelaqua; Selphids didn’t see without eyes. But she had senses beyond that of a body. And Jelaqua undulated darkly.
“The Minds…don’t need to know about Erin. If they want Joseph—fine. I’ll respect their wishes. But we’re calling Seborn and Moore in here and telling them.”
Ulinde gasped. Again—another parallel. She exuded a tiny bubble of oxygen which both Selphids sensed.
“But Jelaqua, the orders are secret—”
Jelaqua poked Ulinde. That was…broadly speaking the same.
“We don’t keep secrets from teammates. That’s how Garen…no. Not even the Mind’s orders. Not about Erin. You’re loyal to our people, Ulinde. But you need to learn about what being loyal to your team means.”
In short order, the other two Halfseekers were brought in. They listened. They debated. Seborn didn’t like it. Moore didn’t like it. But Jelaqua was adamant.
“Lads—you don’t know the Minds. We’re both Selphids; disobeying them is like disobeying your [Captain], Seborn.”
“I did that all the time. I abandoned my ship, Jelaqua.”
The Drowned Man [Rogue] and former [Pirate] growled. The Selphid hesitated.
“…Okay, not like that. It’s like…betraying your team. There’s no going back for us, boys. And the Minds know about Joseph and Earth.”
She looked around significantly. Moore and Seborn went still. Ulinde went quiet. She shivered, though her body felt no cold. She was in the presence of history. A name unspoken.
“What will you do, Jelaqua? If it puts Erin and Mrsha and the inn in danger, I will not have it. They have been through enough.”
Moore rumbled. Jelaqua nodded at him.
“Nothing like that. I…don’t think the Minds know about Erin. And we’ll keep it that way. I propose we go to the inn. And tell Erin about it.”
The other Halfseekers looked at each other. Ulinde held her breath. Jelaqua went on.
“It’s the right thing to do. She’s managing the kids, and Montressa, Beza, and that Palt are all there to watch her. We go there, tell her what’s up, and let her decide. Votes?”
The Halfseekers voted. On big things like this, they would. Moore nodded, relief on his face. Seborn raised his claw hand.
“Do it. And if they want us to kidnap Joseph or anyone else, tell them to shove off.”
The other three looked at Ulinde. She blinked.
“Me? But I’m new.”
“The Halfseekers don’t care. What do you say, Ulinde?”
Jelaqua smiled at her. The [Spellslinger] felt warm. Connected to her team. She reached out and slowly grasped the wand at her side. She raised it, and sent a bubble of light floating into the air. It floated upwards, reflecting the faces of her team within. Her team. The [Spellslinger] took a deep, shuddering breath.
“I say—I stand with my team. No matter what the Minds want. Let’s find out, shall we?”
They laughed and patted her on the back, clapped her shoulder, or gave her an approving nod. Ulinde smiled. And she knew this was her team. The reason she’d idolized the Halfseekers hadn’t been because they had a Selphid on their team. Well, it hadn’t been the only reason. It was because they were like this.
Good people. Then Ulinde heard another [Message] go ping in her head. She blinked.
“Mold? Hang on, there’s one other thing…”
The Wandering Inn. Erin Solstice frowned. She rubbed at one ear. It was ringing.
“What did you say?”
Jelaqua said it again. She, Ulinde—Seborn and Moore were downstairs, investigating something in Octavia’s shop. Erin Solstice looked at her friends. She had to be tired after arguing with Wailant, Teliv, and doing business stuff all day.
Erin slowly sat down in the [Garden of Sanctuary]. She had been trying to plant potatoes. She looked at Jelaqua and Ulinde. Then she grinned.
“Well, yeah. I guess I’m from earth. Uh, there’s lot of earth all over. Here, there, everywhere—”
Neither Selphid blinked. Jelaqua looked at [Innkeeper].
“Erin—we know. We’re not idiots. We’ve heard you and Numbtongue when you’re not being quiet enough. And Ulinde’s from Wistram.”
Erin considered this. She had a trowel in hand, potato in the other. She debated throwing the potato at Jelaqua, running for it and…well, what?
“And someone…knows another person from Earth? This, uh, place I’ve never—”
The Selphids both raised an eyebrow. Erin threw down her potato.
“Fine. They know another person from Earth?”
“That’s right, Miss Erin. It’s complicated. The Selphid…authority is trying to get us in touch with Joseph. They know he’s from Earth.”
“How do they know? He just plays soccer! Football!”
Erin snapped. She felt sweat on the back of her neck. Ulinde shrugged.
“Apparently someone from Earth saw him. Erin. They have someone from Earth who wants to speak with him.”
The young woman froze. She looked up.
Neither Jelaqua nor Ulinde was prepared for the hungry look in Erin’s eye. The [Innkeeper] rose to her feet.
“Who? I mean—what’s their name? Are they okay? Where are they from?”
Jelaqua gnawed on a lip. Ulinde waved her hands.
“We don’t know! I have specific orders, Erin. They want me to get Joseph to a secret place and then they’ll relay [Message] spells through me. I’m not Palt. I can’t do [Speak] spells and they don’t want Wistram to know. But…they know. Joseph’s from another world. And…so are you. We know that, not them. And we didn’t tell them.”
“Another world. Earth.”
The Gold-rank Captain looked at Erin. Strangely, but with raised brows. It made sense and it didn’t. There stood Erin Solstice. She looked into Jelaqua’s eyes. The [Innkeeper]’s gaze flickered. She bit her lip, scuffed a foot on the dirt she’d cleared for planting.
Then she shrugged.
“Well, yeah. Sorry I didn’t tell you, Jelaqua. It’s this whole thing. I’m from Earth. Another world. It’s not like this one. Keep it secret.”
She looked at Jelaqua. At Ulinde. The three stood together. No one knew quite what to say. Erin glanced at their faces. She threw up her hands.
“Psyche! Just kidding! Hah, you fell for that? Hilarious!”
The two Selphids blinked at her. Erin lowered her hands. She checked their expressions, scuffed a toe.
“Darn. Okay, let’s think this one out. Come with me.”
“Miss Geneva. Our Selphid has made contact with Joseph.”
Geneva Scala nearly dropped her basin of wet towels. The clinic was full of noise, the staff checking on patients, groans, even eating, but even so she beckoned the Selphid away.
The Selphid [Mage] bowed. His skin was pale; he wore a Gnoll’s body, incongruously enough. It was long-rotted, yellowed bones showing through parts of the skin through gaps in the robe. He smelled like mint.
“Yes. And we have word on the mold you wanted.”
“Really? From whom?”
“A representative contacted the Plain’s Eyes tribe. One of the largest Gnoll tribes in Izril.”
“Their specialty is [Shamans]. They trade the most out of any tribe with the Walled Cities and are very respected.”
Idis whispered in Geneva’s mind. The Selphid [Mage] went on.
“They’ve agreed to look for this mold. If any group could find it, or has records of a substance like that, they would.”
“Oh. I see.”
Geneva sighed. But that was replaced almost at once by concern.
“Does this—Joseph know about…?”
“All he has been told is that someone from Earth wishes to speak with him secretly. He has been told Wistram is untrustworthy. Our agent will have explained.”
“She’s a Gold-rank, as well as a [Mage], Geneva. Ulinde. But she’s trustworthy. I’ll tell you more about her if you like.”
Idis spoke helpfully. Geneva bit her lip. She hadn’t expected it to work so fast. But she made up her mind in an instant.
“I need to decontaminate. Let me scrub. Meet me in the United Nations headquarters in twenty minutes. Please get Paige, Kirana, Daly, Luan, Ken—anyone you can find. Tell this Joseph we want to speak with him. No—wait.”
She stopped the [Mage] as he raised a finger to his temple. The Selphid looked inquisitively at Geneva. The [Doctor] closed her eyes and thought.
“Don’t tell them about us. Just say—it’s me.”
Joseph sat in a room with Jelaqua and Ulinde. No Lyonette. Or Numbtongue. Especially no Mrshas. Not because they weren’t trustworthy. But because…this was a conversation between people from Earth.
So, Joseph turned her head towards Ulinde.
“What’re they telling you? Are we talking in person or what? I can get uh…me, if we need to talk.”
Ulinde looked at ‘Joseph’. Erin sat there, nervous, but her face was determined. Jelaqua eyed her; Erin looked more serious than either Selphid usually saw her.
“I think it’s just [Messages], Erin. They’re getting set up. You’re—oh. You’re talking with, um, Geneva Scala. The Last Light of Baleros, apparently.”
“What? Who? That’s a weird name. The last light of what?”
Erin frowned. Ulinde explained.
“I’ve heard of her, actually. She’s this legend on the battlefield! A—a healer. No, wait. What was her class? Oh. They said. She’s a [Doctor].”
“ A doctor?”
Erin sat up. Her eyes widened.
“What’s special about a [Doctor], Erin? I thought they were weirdoes, like [Saw Doctors] who cut people open when there’s no medicine. Selphids make use of them sometimes, but they’re rare.”
The young woman looked at Jelaqua and shook her head.
“No, Jelaqua! What? A [Doctor] is…a [Healer]. But better. They don’t use magic. They use medicine. Science. Is this person really a doctor-doctor?”
“I have no idea. Let me ask. Hold on…”
“You’ve got Joseph? Really?”
Daly panted as he slammed into the small room. He saw a Selphid [Mage], Geneva, and the other leaders of the company turn to him. Siri raised a finger, but there was no need.
“I am sending [Message] spells. Our agent does not know [Speak].”
The [Mage] informed the others. Geneva nodded tightly. The others were looking at her.
“Tell them it’s just me. Geneva Scala. I am a [Doctor]. From Earth.”
“But don’t say it as a class. She’s actually a doctor. A medical one, who was trained. There’s a difference.”
Paige informed the Selphid. Daly hesitated. He mimed at Luan. Is it okay for the Selphids to know? The [Rower] made a face and shrugged. They already knew through Calectus.
The Gnoll-Selphid looked confused.
“How do I say it?”
“I never finished my certification, Paige. Tell them—”
“Wait, so she’s actually a real doctor? No way! How old is she?”
Erin gasped. She imagined a real doctor would be a lot older than anyone else she’d met! But of course—why not? What if this Geneva was in her sixties?
“How old is she, Ulinde?”
“Hold on! I need to send! I’m not Palt! I don’t do [Message] spells well!”
The [Spellslinger] was concentrating. Erin waited, bouncing up and down in her seat.
“I need to be careful what I say. I’m Joseph. Football, not soccer. Football, not soccer…”
She closed her eyes. Grew still. Erin leaned forwards.
“Listen, Ulinde. Don’t send what I say. Let me think about each response. And when you do send a [Message]—”
“—Do it word-for-word. We’ll keep a log of this conversation. Hell, we’ll write down each response.”
Paige told the [Mage]. He nodded. Geneva Scala took a deep breath. Her heart was fluttering. Why was it racing? Idis was confused too.
“Why are you nervous? You know they’re from your world. Isn’t everyone here from Earth?”
“Yes, but—this is different, I—Okasha.”
Daly glanced at Geneva. He wavered, and then nodded.
“They’re on another continent. We should be careful about what we say, everyone.”
“You think we can’t trust them?”
Ken looked at Daly. The Bushranger’s Captain shrugged slowly.
“I say—just be careful.”
And then the conversation began. Paige’s pencil raced across the paper.
In The Wandering Inn, Erin jotted down her notes.
[Joseph] – Are you really a doctor, doctor? From Earth, I mean? Sorry—how old are you? I know it’s rude to ask…
[Geneva] – I’m twenty five. My name is Geneva. Hello, Joseph. Pleased to meet you.
[Joseph] – Oh! I’m really sorry. Hello! I’m Joseph. Pleased to meet you. You’re the first person from Earth I’ve met.
[Geneva] – Really? I’ve met other people.
[Joseph] – I haven’t. Who have you met? How many others?
In the company’s headquarters, Paige turned to the others and raised an eyebrow.
“You all believe that?”
The others murmured.
“They could have come alone. We shouldn’t have let on…”
“Trust is important.”
Ken’s voice. He looked at Geneva as the [Mage] waited. The [Diplomat] waited a beat.
“—But it is also important to be safe. Tell them…”
[Geneva] – There are others. I came with a group. Some were split apart. Others died. I’m sorry, I can’t be more specific. But there were dozens.
Erin Solstice sat back. Ulinde stopped speaking and saw the [Innkeeper]’s face. The young woman was white-faced.
“Erin. Are you alright? Should we get Lyonette?”
Jelaqua half-rose, concerned at Erin’s expression. The [Innkeeper] didn’t respond at first, so the Selphid opened the door. Ulinde saw Erin’s eyes flick towards her.
[Joseph] – From where? Were they all young? I’m from Spain. What about you?
[Geneva] – America.
[Geneva] – Wisconsin, Madison. The others were around my age.
[Joseph] – I see! That makes sense.
A pause. Erin cursed. Paige looked around at the others.
[Geneva] – How so?
[Joseph] – Was everyone from America?
[Geneva] – No. There were other countries mixed in. Why does everyone being young make sense? How old are you?
“Hey Joseph, how old are you?”
“How old are—”
Erin got up and stormed out the door. Lyonette came hurrying in, demanding answers. Mrsha was clinging to Jelaqua’s shoulders. After a moment, Erin ran back into the room.
[Joseph] – Nineteen.
[Geneva] – I see.
A pause, then. The United Nations company conferred. Lyonette, Numbtongue, Mrsha, and Bird sat together. Still no one else. Jelaqua listened as they conferred.
“…I lied. Okay? They’re from this Selphid group. The Minds.”
“I’ve heard of them. You should be careful, Erin.”
Lyonette shuddered. Jelaqua glanced at her and the [Princess] blushed.
“I’m sorry, Jelaqua. But I heard—”
“…No. You’re right to be wary. The Minds are on our side. No one else’s.”
By ‘our’, she meant Ulinde and herself.
Numbtongue murmured to Erin. She nodded. Bird was sitting there, gamely reading the notes along with Mrsha. She was worried too.
The conversation resumed.
[Geneva] – Let’s be open, Joseph. I am a [Doctor] working in Talenqual. I am attempting to bring some medical knowledge from home to here. It is difficult. I am currently trying to find a cure for the Yellow Rivers bacteria that is in danger of becoming a full-blown pandemic.
Numbtongue and Mrsha started. Lyonette blinked and went to grab the scrying orb.
[Joseph] – I’ve heard of that! How bad is it?
[Geneva] – Very bad. The disease is spreading quickly. Where are you?
[Joseph] – In an inn in Liscor. I’m alone.
[Geneva] – I see.
Silence. The United Nations company eyed each other.
“If we get a knock at the door in the next few days, we’re in trouble.”
“That’s what Calectus’ company is for. We can at least hope they can deal with Wistram [Mages].”
“Assuming Wistram is the only player.”
They frowned as Geneva dictated another response.
[Geneva] – I saw you playing soccer on the scrying orb. How did that happen?
[Joseph] – Coincidence, mainly. I was playing a game and a [Mage] decided to broadcast it.
[Geneva] – The Ullsinoi Faction? The Centaur?
[Joseph] – Yes. He’s a friend. But I’m not affiliated with Wistram. Actually—they’re looking for us. You should be careful.
[Geneva] – Really? Can you elaborate?
[Joseph] – Wistram Academy is finding people from Earth. Earthers. They are sending [Mages] to get us. With or without our consent.
[Geneva] – And they told you this?
[Joseph] – They tried to get me to come with them.
[Geneva] – Did they attempt to force you?
Erin took a deep breath. Ulinde waited, nervous. The others looked at her. The [Innkeeper] saw Lyonette clenching her hands.
[Joseph] – Yes. They failed because I had friends who protected me. The Centaur struck a deal; I’m under the protection of one of Wistram’s factions.
[Geneva] – I see.
Anarchy in the United Nations company.
[Geneva] – Please keep my identity secret.
[Joseph] – I will. The Ullsinoi Faction is not as active as the other ones. I believe they are trustworthy. What was it like when you arrived here? Are there more people from Earth or are you the only one? Are you in danger?
[Geneva] – That’s a difficult question to answer. One moment.
“Oh no. I think they know I’m lying. Ulinde?”
Erin was sweating. The [Spellslinger] shrugged helplessly.
“There’s no nuance, Erin. I’m just getting the replies and repeating them verbatim.”
“Offer them something, Erin. Tell them about Wistram. Or Magnolia. That’s not a big secret.”
“They’ll want to know about Magnolia, then.”
Erin argued. She was thinking about Ryoka’s iPhone thing. Should she ask…? But Geneva had gone silent. And Erin feared…
Numbtongue’s arms were crossed. He didn’t like this dance of information. To him, it felt like fighting in the dark. All spotting the enemy and quick clashes of blades. Exposing too much was how you died. But it was Bird who spoke up next.
“Erin. You are lying.”
The others looked at him. Bird stared at the notes. Erin bit her lip.
“I am, Bird. But we have to be careful. We don’t know if we can trust them.”
The Worker nodded agreeably.
“This is true. However, if I was them and I was listening to you, Erin, I would not trust you either. Because you are lying. If you are lying, how can you ask to trust someone? This makes no sense.”
Mrsha’s head hurt. But Erin looked up. Lyonette opened her mouth.
“You think I should tell the truth, Bird?”
The Worker looked up at her.
“Did you lie to Pawn or we when you taught us chess? I do not think so. If you did—we would not have liked you. Lies are like hollow bricks. You cannot build much with them. It all falls apart.”
The [Innkeeper] looked at him. She took a deep breath.
[Joseph] – …There are others.
[Geneva] – Can you clarify?
[Joseph] – Sorry, but I wanted to be cautious. There are others. I have met them. And I have received letters. From Wistram. There are others, but I cannot tell you where or how many. I do not know who these Selphids are.
[Geneva] – That is understandable. Thank you for being honest.
[Joseph] – To be more honest—we were found by someone. An individual. We were eventually able to leave, but more people know about us. I was not part of this, but there was a…phone call. Or something.
[Geneva] – I know.
Ken raised his iPhone. The others clustered around even more closely. Idis was asking questions. Geneva ignored them.
In the inn, Erin tried to recall what Ryoka had said.
[Joseph] – Do you know who ‘Kent Scott’ is?
[Geneva] – No. Do you?
[Joseph] – No. Honesty set to maximum this time. However—I do know there are others. There is a [Singer] in Terandria. I think that a person is in Chandrar.
[Geneva] – Rémi Canada?
[Joseph] – Yes! Did you read his newspaper-thingy?
The United Nations company was chuckling. ‘Honesty set to maximum’, ‘newspaper-thingy’—they were relaxing. Geneva herself smiled as she replied.
[Geneva] – We get the news. We have a scrying orb.
[Joseph] – Me too! Those are the ones I’m aware of. The group in Rhir, Wistram…and now you.
[Geneva] – And the ones in Izril?
[Joseph] – Yes. They’re safe. As safe as they can be. Are you safe?
The mood turned serious again. Daly pushed forwards.
“What does he mean? Ask—”
[Geneva] – Please clarify by ‘safe’.
[Joseph] – If something bad happens, will you be able to protect yourself?
[Geneva] – I have security, yes. I operate a clinic. It is secure.
[Joseph] – No. I mean, monsters.
[Geneva] – Can you explain further?
[Joseph] – Yes. Monsters. I have been attacked multiple times since coming to this world by monsters. Not just people. Real…monsters. Not Goblins. They’re not monsters.
That came from Numbtongue.
[Geneva] – Do you mean undead? I am familiar with them, but Talenqual is a large city with a mercenary company protecting it.
[Joseph] – Mercenaries? That doesn’t matter. Monsters can overrun a city. I have seen a horde of undead nearly destroy a city. There are worse things. Crelers, for instance.
[Geneva] – Have you encountered them yourself, Joseph?
[Joseph] – Yes. I’ve killed monsters. But I am no [Warrior]. One of us was teleported to a Creler nest with friends. She was the only survivor.
“Fucking hell. This guy’s fought Crelers?”
Daly exclaimed. Siri checked her crossbow.
[Geneva] – Do you have warrior classes? How do you protect yourself?
[Joseph] – I don’t fight if I don’t have to. I have friends. Adventurers, from this world. They’ve died fighting monsters. I’m not that strong. The Watch—the law enforcement, friends, adventurers, fight. But a city will not protect you. You need a safe place. You need to prepare.
Erin was holding Numbtongue’s hand. He looked at her as she spoke.
[Joseph] – There are dungeons full of monsters. Huge ones with magical powers that can terrify you. Flying ones the size of houses. You need to be careful.
[Geneva] – I am. I have protection with me. There are others, as I said. We are relatively safe. Are you safe?
[Joseph] – Yes. Thank you. It was rougher when I first came here. I’ve found a place to stay. Allies.
[Geneva] – When we came here, my group and I were teleported close to a battlefield. Some were from an airport. Melbourne. I was not. But I have been on battlefields. As a [Doctor], I do not fight. Many of the others died, however.
[Joseph] – I see. Armies are different. Monsters, though…it must have been hard.
What a simple statement. But the United Nations company sat there for a moment. Because it was true. And they felt…the other side knew it.
[Geneva] – It was. We have survived. But this world is dangerous.
[Joseph] – Wonderful and dangerous.
[Geneva] – Yes. It is. We find more of us. Some do not survive. But we are looking.
[Joseph] – That is good. I am looking too. If I find them, I will protect them as best I can. I did not think to talk to anyone outside of Izril, however. Listen: do you need any help?
[Geneva] – Us?
[Joseph] – Anything I can do. I have gold. If you need something, I can try to get it to you. We must be careful. But I can ask the faction in Wistram. If you are in danger, let me know and I can try to get to you somehow.
The United Nations company sat there, rereading the [Message]. It was so…confident.
“Him? Help us? With what, football?”
[Geneva] – We should be fine, thank you. We are mostly concerned with gathering information. How we all got here, for instance.
[Joseph] – I’ll tell you what I know. Which isn’t much.
[Geneva] – Thank you.
A brief exchange. Erin sat back.
[Joseph] – No other clues?
[Geneva] – None. We thought it was a spell.
[Joseph] – The [Mages] from Wistram don’t know anything about that.
[Geneva] – Too bad.
[Joseph] – Mhm. Perhaps there is a way we can meet in the future. You are very far away. But I may be able to buy a ship or something.
[Geneva] – Or something?
[Joseph] – I’ll look into it. Talenqual is far away.
Erin was staring at a map.
[Joseph] – Like I said, there’s not much I can do for you from here. But I can send gold, or figure out ways to give you things you might need. If you’re a [Doctor], do you need scalpels or surgical instruments? I know an expert [Blacksmith] who can probably create medical-grade equipment. And an [Enchanter]. Transporting it is an issue, but…
[Geneva] – Are you serious?
[Joseph] – Absolutely.
The United Nations company exchanged glances.
[Geneva] – Out of curiosity, what level are you?
[Joseph] – : ) What about you?
The [Mage] had to write that one down. The [Doctor] herself smiled.
[Geneva] – I’m decently high-level myself. I wish I was better, though. People are dying. Even with my Skills. : /
[Joseph] – Don’t give up! This world needs [Doctors]! \o/
“Stop making me send pictures! It’s too hard!”
[Geneva] – Thank you, again. I’m doing the best I can. Honestly, I have enough resources. But the Yellow Rivers disease is spreading.
[Joseph] – I’ve seen it in the news. It’s not where I am yet, but it looks bad. What can be done?
[Geneva] – We need a cure. But there are no antibiotics in this world that I know of. Do you know any [Alchemists]?
[Joseph] – Yes. I know a high-level one. Antibiotics? Do you mean, like, penicillin?
[Geneva] – Yes! If you have come across any supplements or substances with similar properties, we need it urgently where I am.
[Joseph] – We have penicillin. How much do you need?
[Geneva] – What? Say again?
[Joseph] – We have penicillin. An [Alchemist] I know made it for me. Also, baking soda. And matches. Do you need some for this Yellow Rivers thing?
[Joseph] – …Hello?
[Joseph] – Are you still there?
Chaos in the United Nations headquarters. Some of the others knocked on the door to ask what the screaming was about. Daly nearly knocked Dawson flat.
“Dawson! We’ve found fucking penicillin!”
“Shut up! Everyone shut up!”
Paige was shouting. Kirana looked around, and then clapped her hands.
The miniature shockwave turned the noise into silence. The [Housekeeper] looked at Geneva. The [Doctor] was pale-faced.
[Geneva] – Please confirm. You have penicillin? How?
[Joseph] – I asked one of my [Alchemist] friends to research it months ago. A friend of mine…was sick. It wasn’t ready then. Now, it is. Do you need it?
[Geneva] – Yes. The Yellow Rivers disease is a bacteria. We need as much as possible. It may halt this pandemic. We need it.
[Joseph] – Okay.
“How do we get the stuff? It’s in Izril?”
“Ships. How long will that take?”
Siri was conferring with Luan. He was grimacing over a map.
[Geneva] – If possible, we need it sent to us at all speed. I know it is difficult, but we are aware it is possible to teleport small items.
[Joseph] – Yes. Okay.
[Geneva] – However, we need as much as possible. And the methods of creating more. Written instructions as well as large a supply to cultivate more. Assuming this is a mold? I am sorry, but if possible, we need a Courier. We will attempt to send as much gold as needed. We are calculating how much we can send you.
[Joseph] – Okay. I will have it sent by Courier today.
[Geneva] – What? Please clarify?
[Joseph] – I will arrange it by Courier. Don’t worry. I can do it. What else do you need?
And there was silence. Erin Solstice sat there. Lyonette was pale-faced from the thought of hiring a Courier. But she looked at Erin. Mrsha stared up, peering at Erin’s face. Bird smiled. So did Numbtongue.
Her eyes were focused. She was just sitting there. But the air was charged.
[Geneva] – If you can, we need to see how effective this penicillin-substitute is for the Yellow Rivers disease.
[Joseph] – I see. I can arrange that too. What else? They say they’ve found a cure in Pallass, though.
[Geneva] – That is incorrect. The crystals are not a workable solution. This [Healer] has not dealt with enough patients and those ‘cured’ may still be carriers. She has treated six patients and her crystals cannot be bought or produced in enough numbers. This penicillin-substitute is a better option. Are you sure it is penicillin?
Erin felt a moment of panic. But Ryoka had gone over it with Octavia.
[Joseph] – Fairly sure. It was tested. Okay. Understood.
[Geneva] – Can you send the penicillin?
[Joseph] – I will. Please wait for me to send a response confirming. But I will get it to you as fast as possible. Trust me.
[Geneva] – Thank you.
The [Doctor] whispered. She felt lightheaded. Idis was panicking at all the mixed feelings running through Geneva. But now Geneva Scala sat there. And she could not see the person on the other side. But the conversation went on. And Erin Solstice sat there, trying to imagine a face.
It was a dialogue between the two of them, then.
[Joseph] – Don’t thank me. Thank you. I am not a [Doctor]. I wish I could be. You’re saving lives.
[Geneva] – Not enough. I try.
[Joseph] – That’s all we can do. It’s been difficult.
[Geneva] – Yes. Sometimes it is extremely hard to effect change.
[Joseph] – True. But what other option is there? That’s why we do these things. Don’t give up. It means so much to hear from someone else trying to do the right thing.
[Geneva] – Yes. Here as well.
[Joseph] – Never give up. If I can do anything for you—let me know. I can’t promise anything, but I have friends here. Good people. Let’s keep talking. I’ll let you know as soon as I get the medicine sent. And get you in contact with someone on this end.
[Joseph] – It must have been terrible at the start. But you did it. I did it. Let’s keep working, Geneva.
[Joseph] – We are not alone.
The conversation ended with that, and a few more details. Addresses, notes about the disease. Then the [Mage] looked up. Geneva sat back. Her mind was racing.
“This is too good to be true.”
Siri looked at Ken. The [Diplomat] half-nodded. But he just stared at the log of messages.
“Miss Scala? Are you done for the moment? Adventurer Ulinde has promised to send a [Message]. I will let you know when I receive it.”
The Selphid [Mage] was weary. Geneva nodded.
“Thank you. Please, let me know at once. We have to…Couriers. Even if they can’t find one, we should see…”
“Yes. Let us go. Luan?”
The [Mage] and the three went for the door. When the Selphid was gone, and Geneva, Luan, and Ken, had all run for the nearest Runner’s Guild, Paige turned to Kirana, Siri, and Daly.
“I don’t think that was ‘Joseph’, do you?”
Kirana was looking at the writing. Daly closed his eyes.
“We don’t know if they’re telling the truth.”
“Why would they lie, Daly?”
“I don’t know. But this…do you think they’re serious? A Courier? Penicillin?”
“We’ll find out.”
Siri murmured. And Kirana looked up. It had been a short conversation, all told. Even so—she was smiling. And Daly recalled, on Geneva’s face, an odd expression. Kirana laughed, and it was a good sound. Daly realized her expression was mirrored on his face. He looked down at the last line and marveled how much it mattered to say.
“We’re not alone.”
“Lyonette? We’ve got work to do.”
Ulinde was panting, cheeks flushed. Or rather, she was having to inhale more oxygen for her inner body, and the glowing orange in her cheeks and body were a sign the Selphid had exhausted herself. Erin turned to her.
“Ulinde. Thanks so much. I’m going to need your help, but rest. Let Lyonette get you anything you need.”
The [Spellslinger] waved weakly. Jelaqua looked at Erin.
“What’re you going to do, Erin?”
The [Innkeeper] smiled.
“I’m going to get a Courier. And other things.”
She turned and left the private room. Then she walked down the corridor. Numbtongue followed her just in time to see Erin pick up the pace. She jogged—and then ran.
The [Innkeeper] slammed into Stitchworks. Octavia nearly dropped the potion she was working on.
“Erin! Don’t do that! What’s the matter? Are monsters attacking?”
The [Alchemist] looked around wildly. Erin shook her head.
“Penicillin! How much do you have?”
The Stitch-Girl brightened.
“You mean, there’s a buyer? I’ve been in talks with some [Healers] over this Yellow Rivers thing, but—”
“Octavia, we need all of it! Get it! The mold, the actual penicillin—start packing it up! It needs airtight containers—except for the mold, it needs to be alive—it’s going across the world! Get all of it! And start growing more! As much as you can!”
“What? Who’s buying it?”
The [Alchemist] was dumbstruck. She stared at Erin. The [Innkeeper] threw up her hands.
She ran from the shop. Shouts followed her, but Erin was sprinting now.
Madness ran through Erin’s veins. An electric excitement. In this moment, she felt like she could take on Moore in a wrestling competition and win. She floated as she ran, leaping down the corridor.
There was someone else! Geneva! A [Doctor]! Someone who was trying to—
“Drassi! Drassi! I need you, and Ishkr! I need you to go into Liscor and find—”
Everyone was moving too slow. Erin barged into the common room and the staff and guests turned. There was a susurration. Perhaps they saw it on her face.
But there was already a crowd. Why? Perhaps—Erin blinked as she saw Olesm, Belgrade, Pawn, a number of chess aficionados—
The Dragon sat at the table, arms folded. In front of him was a chessboard, all set.
The Grand Magus looked at her. His mismatched eyes blazed.
“Erin Solstice. I have returned. I want a rematch. That last loss was…unacceptable. We’ll play a game now.”
Erin saw Reynold and a [Maid] hovering behind him, looking worried. And the crowd looked at her. She faltered. Her eyes were drawn to the board.
“Now’s not a good time, Eldavin. Can’t this wait?”
“No. Sit down. We’ll bet properly on this game this time.”
His eyes narrowed. Erin paused.
She looked at him. She looked at the chess game. Then, slowly, she went over to the table.
The inn went still. Erin looked at the board, the white side, which Teriarch had given her for that slight edge. His gaze. And Olesm was prepared to annotate the entire game. Every chess player in Liscor was here and someone had sent a [Message] to Chaldion.
Because here they were. The two chess players regarded each other, Teriarch in his comfy chair, Erin hovering in front of the board, torn.
The games of legends. The battle of a century. Two masters from different worlds, at the very peak of the game, whose clashes would redefine chess strategy.
A clash of tita—
Erin put her hands under the table and flipped it. Eldavin ducked just in time. His head popped up and the board sailed past his face as his chair went over backwards.
The board and chess pieces flew across the inn. They bounced off mugs, clattered onto the floor. One landed in an open mouth and someone began to choke.
Erin walked past the table. Calmly. Her blood raced through her veins. She looked around and saw Ishkr staring at her.
“Get me Drassi and Hawk. Now.”
She ignored Grand Magus Eldavin as Octavia raced into the common room with a huge jar of her filtered penicillin and the mold samples itself. The [Innkeeper] began shouting.
Maviola saw Erin blazing like the sun. She was speaking fast, shouting at people, ignoring Eldavin. She had a mission.
Penicillin. Octavia had just been informed where she’d be sending the bulk of her supply. She had brought it out from storage, but she was protesting. Not because she was unwilling to sell it, but because she had no idea what she was getting for her hard work.
“How much am I getting? I mean…I’ll make it dirt-cheap. But it is hard work.”
She pleaded with Erin as the [Innkeeper] scribbled down the amounts in rough letters and shoved it at Ulinde. Erin turned to her.
“Keep enough mold to grow, Octavia. This can help with the Yellow Rivers thing. We’re sending it to Baleros.”
Half the listeners exclaimed. Olesm looked sharply at Maviola, but she was taken aback as everyone else. Octavia blinked.
“How much is it going for?”
“Free. We’re sending it via Courier.”
“It’s going to help with the Yellow Rivers disease, Octavia.”
The [Innkeeper] snapped. The [Alchemist] opened and closed her mouth.
But the profits. She looked around. Numbtongue was there. Octavia hesitated—then deflated.
Erin didn’t notice at first. Numbtongue did. He went over, poked Erin hard. She yelped.
He whispered in her ear. The [Innkeeper] turned.
“But—oh. Right. Okay—okay. Let me…”
She closed her eyes for a moment, pinched the bridge of her nose and thought. Octavia glanced up. Numbtongue nodded to her. Erin turned.
“Sorry. Listen, Octavia, this stuff is going to go for free. To a [Doctor]. She needs it. I’m sorry, but people—thousands, tens of thousands—need this stuff now.”
“That’s fine, Erin. Really.”
The [Innkeeper] shook her head.
“No, listen, Octavia. We’re sending as much as we can to Baleros so they can grow more and use the stuff. But keep…a quarter of your supply? Ulinde, write down Octavia’s name. And Stitchworks. Tell them it’s from her. And Octavia?”
She pointed at the Stitch-Girl. The [Alchemist] glanced up.
“…Put your name on every jar, Octavia. And grow lots more. People are going to want as much as they can get. When they buy it from you, make it cheap. And the [Doctor] is going to tell everyone who made it. I’ll buy your entire supply myself; don’t worry. No matter how much gold…”
“I’ll pay for it.”
A voice. Erin turned. And a [Sinew Magus] rose from the chair where he’d been prepared to take notes. Grimalkin strode forwards.
“This can cure the plague in Zeres?”
His eyes were sharp as he looked at Erin and then the mold and penicillin. Erin glanced up at Grimalkin.
“Then Pallass will pay for it. And if the Assembly won’t, I’ll cover it myself. Send the bill to me.”
Octavia felt weak-kneed. Grimalkin glanced at Erin.
“Just so long as some of it reaches Zeres, as well as Baleros.”
“The [Doctor] needs it to make it most effective. But yeah. I’ll talk to you in…thirty minutes. Octavia? You’re getting paid. Is that okay?”
“Sure. I mean…put my name on the jars?”
“In big lettering. Like a logo or something.”
Erin helpfully pointed to the glass jar. Octavia thought about that. Baleros? A cure for…she began muttering.
“Complimentary matches. Aaah! I need to grow more mold! Labels? A logo?”
She ran. Erin had penicillin. Grimalkin was asking questions, but she had to get this stuff moving. Delivery would take a longer time. She needed a Courier.
“So, I need a Courier from the nearest big port. One who can go on the oceans fast. But you need to get it there. Like—by nightfall. Any city will do; anyone with a Courier. I’ll hire them. How about it, Hawk?”
The Rabbit Beastkin looked at Erin. He looked at the table piled with Octavia-brand jars which she was hastily slapping logos on. Mrsha had come up with it. A needle and thread sticking out of a jar. Lyonette had…improved the art with [Flawless Attempt].
Teriarch was harrumphily listening as the two servants tried to placate his bad mood. Selys was trying to keep up. And Hawk?
“No, Erin. Nothing doing.”
He shook his head. Erin blinked.
“What? Why? Hawk, this is essential—”
The Courier folded his furry arms.
“Hold on, Erin. I understand this is important, but business is still business. I can’t just run an errand for nothing. Besides, I’m not running any deliveries.”
“I can pay!”
“Yes…at a discount, though? That goes against my principles. But that’s not it either, Erin. Even if I was going to do you a favor, I don’t want to leave the city.”
Erin and Selys chorused that. The Rabbit-man looked pointedly at Selys. He put an arm around her.
“I’m staying here in case there are more riots. I’m not about to leave Selys at the hands of a mob.”
“Hawk! Don’t be an idiot! This is medicine! Like potions! I’m fine! The riots never even got into the guild!”
Selys glowered at him. The Rabbit Beastkin blew out his cheeks.
“What are you saying? I should be right here. That’s what a concerned partner does!”
“Not if people’s lives are at risk! You take Erin’s delivery! Don’t be stupid!”
“I’m concerned for you!”
The two began arguing. Erin looked from face to face. She opened her mouth, and decided against it. She didn’t have time to waste.
“Problems with delivery?”
Grand Magus Eldavin inquired silkily from his chair. Erin glanced at him.
“I’m working on it.”
“Perhaps I could—no, then again, halfhearted—”
Erin stormed past him without hearing. The Dragon harrumphed again.
“Change of plans. Get Drassi here, Ishkr.”
“I asked, but she’s nowhere to be found, Erin.”
The Gnoll was panting. He’d gone to her apartment. Erin scowled.
“Find her. Drag her here! I need Drassi! Tell her I’ll pay her triple overtime—whatever it takes! But she’ll want to do this. I have to go to Invrisil.”
The Runner’s Guild in Invrisil was busy as usual. The [Innkeeper] strode up to one [Receptionist]’s counter. She hopped up and down until the City Runner in front of her was done. Then she approached.
“Can I…help you, Miss?”
The [Receptionist] gave Erin a very odd look, but she’d seen worse. The young woman leaned on the counter.
“I want a Courier. I have a delivery I need to get to Baleros. I want a Courier who can get it to the nearest port-city, and then another who can get it across the ocean as fast as possible.”
Heads turned. That kind of request was big. The kind that nobles made, but…this young woman didn’t look exactly rich enough to make it. The [Receptionist] gave her an appraising look and coughed into her hand.
“Miss. I’m afraid only a few Couriers are nearby, even in Invrisil’s Guild.”
“Okay. I want to talk to them.”
The [Receptionist] gave Erin a strained smile.
“Miss Solstice, we can’t just request a Courier without some, um, assurances that you can afford them. By all means, you can post a request with your available funds, and they will review the request at their leisure. However…”
“This is urgent. I want to send medicine! To Baleros! It’s about this Yellow Rivers thing!”
Now more heads popped up. Erin was debating Pallass. But Grimalkin had thought Invrisil was more likely to have a Courier if Hawk couldn’t be persuaded. The [Receptionist] licked her lips. She didn’t like doing this, but…she put on an apologetic face.
“Miss Erin. I know someone might need a…potion. Or poultice. But even so, I’m sure Baleros has its own [Healers]. Couriers may be inclined to read your request and take on a case for charity. But you must wait.”
Erin’s eyes narrowed.
“Nobles wouldn’t have to wait, would they?”
“The nobility…are the nobility, Miss Erin.”
The [Receptionist] was firm. Erin thought of Maviola. Or Grimalkin. Or Chaldion. She could waste time. Or…the [Lady Firestarter]’s words echoed in Erin’s mind.
The [Innkeeper] leaned over the counter. The [Receptionist] leaned back. Erin Solstice pointed at herself.
“Listen. You may not know me, but I’m Erin Solstice. An [Innkeeper] from Liscor.”
“From Liscor? Oh, you’re the one with—”
“The magic door.”
Erin let that sink in. She looked around the guild. Full of runners. Then went on.
“I’m the [Innkeeper] with a magic door. That connects Liscor to Invrisil to Pallass. I’ve agreed not to send packages through to Invrisil from Liscor because it’ll mess with the Runner’s Guild. It ruined Celum’s Runner’s Guild for a bit. But I’ve agreed to ban that for Invrisil. No…deliveries that would y’know, negate 400 miles of hard work. Because that’s bad for Runners.”
Oh. The Runner’s Guild looked more closely at Erin. The [Innkeeper] looked at the [Receptionist], who’d begun to sweat. Erin Solstice smiled.
“Don’t make me change my mind. I want to speak with a Courier.”
It was the most aggressive move Erin had ever made, and she’d flipped a table about fifteen minutes ago. The [Receptionist] begged to confer with the Guildmaster. But before she came back, someone applauded. Erin turned—
A short man and a horse stood behind her. The horse was beautiful, a silvery mare. The man was…uh, well, more like one of the horse jockeys than anything else. But he was confident. And grinning.
“Well, you’ve got my attention. Tritel and Ci. I’m a Courier. The Moonlight Rider. What do you want, Miss Erin Solstice?”
“I see. So this is…meant to cure that Yellow Rivers stuff? Must be worth a lot.”
Tritel eyed the jar of mold in Erin’s inn. Ci had come with him. Ishkr cautiously offered her a tub of water. Iced. The mare delicately drank as she snorted at him.
Even Erin had been forced to do a double-take at the Moonlight Rider’s insistence that his partner go everywhere with him. But Ci was perfectly behaved. She’d walked in, stared at Mrsha, and then looked bemused at Palt. He’d rolled his eyes, but didn’t seem to have a problem with a horse and rider.
“It’s valuable—but I’m not trying to earn money on it. It’s meant to go to a [Doctor]. She’s working on a cure.”
Tritel was smoking. Tobacco. Erin let him do it. The Courier only stopped when Ci blew the smoke back in his face. He grimaced and put it out.
“My horse is a tyrant. Anyways, let’s say I did this. Looks like we need to keep the mold out of bags of holding, right?”
“That’s right. It’s alive. So…no bags of holding. But this you can take.”
Erin gestured to the processed penicillin. Tritel nodded.
“And when we get to a port, say, First Landing, you want this loaded onto a ship or a Courier’s craft. And it’s bound for Talenqual? That’s a port city. Yeah, a sea-Courier could get it there fast. But that’s no cheap offer.”
The [Innkeeper] was waiting. Tritel took a gulp from the blue juice and rum he’d asked for. He glanced at Ci.
“So? How much are we getting paid?”
“Well, I can’t afford to pay you full rates. But I can…”
Erin glanced around for Grimalkin, but he was gone, off securing funds for Octavia. Eldavin calmly watched. Tritel laughed.
“Miss Erin. You can’t ask us to go hundreds of miles at top speed—even from Invrisil—and expect us to do it for nothing!”
“It’s going to save lives.”
He nodded amicably.
“I know. In that case, get a City Runner. It’ll be slower by a few days, and a [Captain] will be slower by boat, but they’ll do it affordable.”
“You won’t do it for charity?”
He shrugged. A look crossed Tritel’s face.
“Listen, Miss Erin. I’ve been begged hundreds, thousands of times by wives, asking me to take an antidote to their husbands. Or adventurers who need me to bail them out with a potion. Children who need transport to The Healer of Tenbault or somewhere with a good [Healer]. Sometimes I do it. I used to do it a lot. But if I do it too much, I’ll spend my entire life running without a penny. And I have to feed Ci and myself. I’ve known Couriers who died like that.”
The [Innkeeper] pursed her lips.
“So people dying doesn’t bother you?”
His eyes flashed. Ci glowered at Erin and bent her head to nudge the [Innkeeper]. But Tritel stopped her.
“I never said that. I just said, I need compensation. And if you think I’m heartless—the sea-Courier needs money too. More, really. They need to cross a damn ocean with this cargo. Can you pay us?”
Erin Solstice sat back. She was thinking. Reynold frowned.
“Lady Reinhart would surely…”
He looked at Sacra. She nodded.
“I’ll send a [Message].”
She unrolled a scroll. And Teriarch held up a hand.
“Not just yet.”
The two servants blinked. They looked down at him. The Dragon sat in his chair, watching Erin.
Reynold wondered if this was Eldavin’s pique showing. But the half-Elf was just watching Erin. He glanced at Reynold.
“If she fails, send a [Message]. But wait.”
The young woman looked around. Lyonette was shaking her head. It would deplete the inn’s funds, even if they could afford to hire both. And Erin didn’t think a [Doctor] had that much money. If she needed to, she’d ask via Ulinde. But…there were ways.
Her eyes alighted on Galina, instructing an older Gnoll woman on the parts of A Doll’s House. Erin looked back at Tritel.
“What about other forms of compensation, Tritel?”
He laughed dismissively.
“Miss Erin. If I had a copper penny for every time I heard that—”
Erin Solstice slapped the table. Ci backed up in surprise. She leaned forwards and the Moonlight Rider and his horse leaned back.
“Tritel. And Ci. The Players of Celum have a booth in their theater reserved for me. Are you a big fan of plays?”
“You? I mean—I’ve seen the other plays, back before they arrived. Ci has to wait, so I’m not a fan of them, though. Decent stuff. What, why?”
Tritel blinked at Erin. She owned the Solstice Booth? The young woman looked at him. She put her cards on the table.
“I will get you and the Courier who delivers it across the sea an exclusive seat in the Solstice Booth and a performance dedicated to you by the Players of Celum, who will dedicate the play to you by name to the entire audience for an entire month as a patron of the arts.”
It was a variation of her Octavia gambit. Tritel’s eyes widened. He took a deep sip of the drink.
“…You can do that?”
“Absolutely. Your name. And Ci’s. And I’ll pay you as much as I can. The sea-Courier too. How about it? Free access to the Solstice booth. For as many plays as you want. We can always share. Plus, you can take friends with you.”
Tritel was thinking about that. That was…very tempting. Erin Solstice sat there. She smiled at him and the Moonlight Rider grinned. He was wavering. Erin looked at him and then at his horse. She grinned.
“This will save lives. It’s the right thing to do. And…I’ll get your horse in the booth as well.”
The [Rider] blinked at Erin. And then he laughed.
“Deal. I’ll do it for free if I get that! Now, do you have a sea-Courier? Because if not, I need a [Message] spell to negotiate…”
On the other side of the world, Geneva Scala was standing in the Runner’s Guild. She didn’t have Erin’s ability to threaten economic competition. But she had Luan, and Ken.
“That’s right. How about Rexielsa? I know her. Let her know it’s Luan the Rower. We’re asking for a delivery. It won’t be at good rates, but let her know The Last Light of Baleros is asking.”
Names had power. Geneva tried to stand straight and look…like a myth of the battlefields. The [Receptionist], a Dullahan, kept glancing at her.
“We can do that, Luan…but they’re busy.”
“It’s a personal favor. They know me.”
“Um—we’ll get in touch as fast as possible. As soon as one gets to the Runner’s Guild.”
“Let them know it’s about the Yellow Rivers disease, please. I am sure even Couriers are concerned. This will keep everyone healthy.”
Ken put in. The [Receptionist]’s eyes widened and she scribbled an addendum. Luan nodded gratefully at Ken. He turned to Geneva.
“It’ll be a while. Why don’t you go back to the headquarters? They know I know you, Geneva. You don’t have to be here.”
“Okay. Let me know if there’s anything I can do.”
The [Doctor] inhaled. She still felt jumpy. Was this happening?
The Humans spun. Siri raced into the Runner’s Guild. She was panting.
“Geneva! We just got word. The penicillin’s away! A Courier is bringing it to First Landing! There are sea-Couriers there. We just have to get in contact—Joseph says he’s working on it.”
Luan blinked. Siri nodded.
“And that’s not all. Listen—we need you to get back to headquarters right away! There’s something else.”
Geneva ran. Idis ran, really. But the [Doctor] was back at the United Nations headquarters before the panting Siri. The [Ranger] entered after Geneva, clutching at her side. Geneva was fast.
“I wish I had a Selphid.”
She commented to Daly. The Australian young man was reading from a piece of paper.
[Joseph] – We have the [Alchemist] with the penicillin here. And that [Healer] you saw on the scrying orb.
[Geneva] – Really? How?
[Joseph] – Magic stuff. We’re going to send more penicillin to Zeres, but we want to know how effective it is. Can you outline how to use it and how to treat people?
[Geneva] – Absolutely. Give me one moment.
“I need my notes. Can someone get them from my room?”
Paige hurried upstairs. Geneva sat down. She wasn’t even breathing hard. She began to correspond as the others watched. The Selphid [Mage] groaned as Geneva scrawled out paragraphs to send.
“Who is this [Doctor]?”
Demerra demanded. She was here at Grimalkin’s request, and also to follow her patient, who’d snuck out of her clinic. But Chaldion was reading with as much interest as Grimalkin. He was looking from Erin to the detailed correspondence.
“An expert in treating infections. Or so it seems. How much do you trust this individual, Miss Solstice?”
“A lot, Grimalkin. And this is the medicine. She wants you to test with it, Demerra. Do you have more patients?”
“Two. In a room in the clinic.”
“Who I’m sharing space with. What is this about ‘airborne infection’?”
Chaldion’s brows snapped together. The Gnoll [Healer] blinked.
“We have as many healing crystals as possible, Grand Strategist—”
“That doesn’t stop disease, according to this [Doctor].”
They weren’t reading the exact replies from ‘Joseph’ to Geneva, but an abridged version. Octavia was frowning and trying to figure out how to create the various substances Geneva wanted. Everything from a poultice to an…injection?
“I suggest you begin treatments with these [Doctor]’s orders at once, Healer Demerra. And meanwhile, I shall stay in my home.”
Chaldion came to a quick decision. The Gnoll [Healer] began to protest, but she eyed the figures about infection rates nervously.
“I—I can certainly apply the poultices and such if I deem them safe to use, Grand Strategist. But I can assure you, my crystals—”
“How much of this mold is needed?”
“Lots. If it works, we need lots. Octavia’s growing more on bread and stuff, but we’re going to have to do it outside my inn. Because uh, the [Field of Preservation].”
Erin waved her hands. She was waiting on one last person.
Drassi. The Drake came into the inn, protesting as Ishkr found her at last. Grimalkin nodded.
“Send a sample to Oteslia. If it works—they can grow enough.”
“Sure. But remember, it’s Octavia’s. Here’s a jar with the label.”
The [Sinew Magus] and Chaldion eyed the giant ‘Stitchworks’ logo and Octavia’s name plastered on the jar. The huge Drake sighed.
“…I’ll communicate that. Healer Demerra—treat the patients as the [Doctor] prescribes.”
“That’s an order, [Healer].”
The Grand Strategist spoke. And Demerra only hesitated a moment before bowing. Erin glanced around. She waited until Chaldion and Grimalkin were looking the other way before wiggling her fingers. Unnoticed, a Selphid’s head ducked back into the [Garden of Sanctuary].
Erin sighed. Her manic energy was running out. But not just yet. Courier away. [Healer] trialing with Octavia.
“Erin, what’s this about? I have weekends! Even if it isn’t the weekend.”
The [Gossip] was complaining, but only mildly. She sensed something was up. She peered at Grimalkin, Chaldion, and the paper. Erin turned to her.
“Drassi…I have something I want you to do. It’s complex, so let me explain. And you don’t have to do it—”
The Drake opened her mouth. Erin went on.
“—but I bet you’ll want to. And I need your help, Grimalkin. Chaldion.”
The two male Drakes peered at her suspiciously. Grimalkin folded his arms.
“If it’s going to cause havoc to no end, Erin, I’ll decline. But go on.”
She smiled at him.
“On the contrary, [Sinew Magus]. It’s going to do good. Or do you like stupid things? More importantly—it requires testicles.”
Grimalkin blinked at Erin. Then he laughed.
“They’ll trial it. Apparently, it’s worked on their cultures before so I think it might actually be a broad-spectrum antibiotic.”
Geneva sat back, sighing. The others murmured.
“And this Joseph guy…is doing all this?”
“Yeah. That’s what our Selphid says.”
Perhaps only the [Doctor] noted Idis’ worried sound and the Selphid [Mage] blinking. But they kept it quiet. Geneva cleared her throat; she’d been speaking a lot.
“Please send the following: ‘Emphasize the antibiotics need to be taken after recovery is apparent or the disease may not be fully eradicated. It is essential to complete treatment.’”
Geneva sat back. She closed her eyes for a moment. The others waited, milling about.
“If the trial works…that [Alchemist] is gonna be rich.”
“Not if we grow everything ourselves. They sent the fungus.”
“Huh. Well—we can credit it to her. Right? And if we have an antibiotic, we can make a lot of drugs!”
“It’s not a cure-all.”
The Italian woman opened her eyes. She sat up.
“It might not even have the desired effect. We have to see, and make sure we’re fully eradicating the bacteria. There will still be casualties. But yes—if everything goes well, we might be able to scale up production of a cure enough to halt the disease. If that happens, I will ensure this [Alchemist] gets full credit.”
“As well as The Last Light of Baleros?”
Kirana teased. Geneva glanced up.
“I didn’t do much. This [Alchemist] managed to create the antibiotic. As well as…”
She stared at the message. Someone had thought of penicillin as well. And to judge from it—months before Geneva had.
It was humbling. The [Doctor] felt like a fool. If she’d done that from the start, rather than signing up to be a battlefield-surgeon, she would have saved more lives than she ever did with her bare hands.
“Let it work.”
She whispered. Someone patted her on the shoulder. Siri. The Swedish girl smiled.
“It will. Someone over there is our friend.”
“And speaking of which—let’s not crowd Geneva, everyone. We’re probably making it worse if someone’s sick. Let’s go. Anyone free? We’ll do a kick-about with the soccer ball. Who’s up for that?”
Daly raised his voice. A good number of Earthers followed him. Geneva was left sitting there.
“Geneva? Are you okay? You’ve got a lot of emotions in you. This is good, right?”
“This is good. I’m fine. Thank you—Siri.”
The [Doctor] stood. She felt lighter. She looked around. Hope had taken a mountain off her shoulders. For a moment.
“At least if we get this medicine working, we can debunk these idiots on the scrying orb.”
Paige groused. She pointed at Sir Relz and Noass, who were talking about trade implications. Geneva grimaced.
“Another [Healer] will bring up penicillin. Maybe even this Demerra. There’s no point to touting a cure until we’re certain.”
She glowered, nonetheless, at the two Drakes who had a healing crystal gifted to them by Demerra prominently displayed on their desk. They were still broadcasting worldwide.
“—trade with Baleros is thus limited out of practicality for the meantime. I’d take that into account, all you [Merchants] and [Traders] listening and anyone with an eye for overseas products.”
“How many people does that make? Most people can’t afford overseas goods. This is the rich bastards all over again, making a show for them. Wistram. I’m going to kill Aaron. Someone turn them off.”
Cara O’Sullivan, [Singer] of Terandria sat on her couch, scowling. She waved and one of the band members reached for the orb.
There had been riots in the city the [Singer] had visited. Thanks to the Drakes. She’d managed to calm the crowds, but the same could not be said for other Terandrian cities.
It was bad business. Cara eyed Noass. If she could drop-kick him at this very moment, she would. The two Drakes had the world’s ear, but they weren’t responsible with it. They were—
“—idiots! Archmages, this is unacceptable!”
The mob of Earthers in Wistram’s hallway were blocking traffic. The other [Mages] were listening, but Feor had wisely ordered the students and younger [Mages] not in the know kept away from this…protest.
It was as close to a revolt as Wistram had ever seen. Two thirds of the young people from Earth had demanded an audience with the Archmages. Elena, their spokesperson, was arguing with Feor and Viltach. The half-Elf was trying to understand.
“That’s not good journalism. You—it—you can’t just say ‘go buy magic crystals’!”
She was pointing to Noass and Sir Relz, who were the Wistram-sponsored television anchors. Not because they were particularly well-connected. But they’d been the first. Feor had cause to regret that, now.
“Miss Elena. I am trying to understand your objections. What have these two Drakes done wrong? They have faithfully kept to our talking points.”
“Yes, but they also caused riots and they’re spreading misinformation! Healing crystals? If this disease is as bad as it seems, they shouldn’t be saying it’s ‘under control’!”
Elena pointed at Sir Relz, who was adjusting his monocle.
“They didn’t say that.”
Archmage Viltach’s arms were folded. He was less impressed than Feor. Elena scowled. It was Aaron who interjected.
“But they’re downplaying the situation, Archmage Viltach.”
“They’re keeping people from panicking. What’s wrong with that?”
“Well…maybe they should panic. Or be worried. The truth is that not everyone can afford a healing crystal, right? So people aren’t being careful when they should be. I hear it’s really bad in Baleros. If crystals cured the disease, it wouldn’t be that bad.”
The others nodded. Feor stroked his beard. It was true; they’d received a lot of complaints about the riots. Thoughtfully, he glanced at the two Drake [Commentators].
“You have a point, Elena. Noass and Sir Relz have been…calming figures. But not without flaw. We were trialing other [Commentators], but setting up multiple areas of broadcast was deemed needlessly complex.”
“You should hire someone else. Someone from Baleros with good practices. There are standards that news people should be held to. This—this is just making people feel complacent.”
The broadcast droned on. Archmage Viltach consulted the rough numbers of how many people were watching. It was dropping; without drama, less people tended to watch. Still, he didn’t like Elena’s uppity tone.
“Perhaps we want them pacified. They don’t need to know the truth.”
Viltach’s soft murmur had been a bit too loud. The crowd of Earthers quieted, and Elena looked appalled. Feor scowled as he glanced at the Human Archmage.
“We will consider the issue carefully, Miss Elena. You have my word. For now…”
He was about to order them to disperse in a kindly way when something happened. There were voices, arguing. Then—a rattling sound.
Not from the hallway. Feor’s head turned. In the scrying orb, he saw Noass and Sir Relz glance up.
“—er, the situation in Ailendamus—erm…”
The Drakes stared. Feor heard a voice.
“You can’t come in here! You can’t—”
“By order of Grand Strategist Chaldion, move aside.”
Someone thrust an assistant into the frame. A Gnoll stumbled into the view—then fled. Noass rose. Sir Relz blinked.
“I say, what’s this—”
Every head turned. Viltach saw the live-viewers count begin to climb. And there she was.
A smiling Drake, who was vaguely familiar to some viewers thrust her way forwards. There was arguing in the background, but she grabbed the magical ‘microphone’ as the two Drakes recoiled.
“Miss Drassi? We’re not hosting the football game until later this week! Why are you here? We are live—”
Noass cried out. Drassi backed up. The camera-Garuda swung the view up towards her. Drassi was terrified. But she smiled desperately. And—she was a [Gossip]. She had lived for this moment.
“Hello! Sorry to break in, but I have an important series of questions to raise! Drassi here, The Liscorian Gazette! I just had to speak to our hosts here about their coverage of the Yellow Rivers plague.”
“What? Our coverage? Give that microphone back, young—”
Noass recoiled as Drassi kicked at him. She spoke up, pointing a finger at them.
“Excuse me, Sir Relz! Noass! But don’t you think it’s misleading to claim healing crystals are a cure for the Yellow Rivers disease when—”
She fumbled for her notes.
“—when even Healer Demerra admits it still takes a week in her healing beds for a full recovery? And that’s with numerous healing crystals! Can one really prevent disease, or is that just a false claim?”
“What? What? We were just—give that—”
The two Drakes were reaching for the microphone, and Sir Relz reached for his side and his self-defense wand. He halted—mainly because of a figure standing just off-screen.
Sinew Magus Grimalkin’s arms were folded. He made no move. He was just watching. But the Drake loomed. He gave the impression that Sir Relz could draw his wand and cast as many spells as he wanted. And after Relz was done, Grimalkin would deal with him. Sir Relz froze.
The news broadcast had turned into an interview. The two Drakes found themselves sitting as Drassi found a seat. The camera moved back as the three began to debate.
“What’s this about, Miss Drassi? One cannot just barge in here and—waste people’s time.”
“If I were wasting people’s time, I wouldn’t be here, Sir Relz. Noass. I’m just here to bring up what I feel is…misinformation. You two have been talking about the Yellow Rivers disease as if it’s not a big problem. But there are tens of thousands of sick people in port cities across the world. Isn’t that cause for alarm?”
Noass shuffled his papers. Sir Relz folded his claws and carefully replied.
“…Of course. That’s why we’re reporting on it. Just what about that is objectionable, young lady?”
Drassi smiled kindly. She waved at the healing crystal on his desk.
“Yes, but—is this good coverage? You put Healer Demerra on. And all fairness to her, she is high-level. But she’s not exactly on the front lines of the problem, is she? There are six infected people in Pallass.”
“And? She has treated them quite efficiently.”
“But it’s six people. How would Demerra handle thousands? Why isn’t a [Healer] from Baleros—or at least Zeres talking? How are they dealing with this? Are they finding crystals effective?”
“I—well, of course it’s a concern. But Demerra was presenting an option for people to protect themselves.”
The [Gossip] looked blank.
“Do they work?”
“—Demerra’s recommended them.”
The two Drakes’ expressions changed as Drassi glanced at the crystal.
“So, they absolutely work at protecting people from the Yellow Rivers disease. You have one of these—which everyone can afford—and we’re safe?”
“You know, it’s not that simple—”
“Then why are you talking about this? I watch your show every day.”
“Well, thank you—”
Drassi raised a hand and Sir Relz stopped smiling.
“I’ve stopped enjoying it as much. After the riots coverage. You know, there was a riot in Liscor?”
“We brought it up ourselves.”
“Yeah. Funny thing. There wasn’t one until you got to Invrisil and broadcast the crowds. Why’d you do that?”
Sir Relz was getting annoyed. He leaned forwards and snapped.
“Miss Drassi. Our job is to report the news. We’re [Commentators]. Our entire class is based around presenting what’s happening and giving our take! That’s our role.”
“Sure it is. My class does the same thing. But I don’t say things that might get people hurt. I’m a [Gossip], but I don’t tell lies.”
“Half-truths, then. What did telling people about riots achieve? Did you have to show us how mad everyone was? In the same way—do you think that telling people ‘healing crystals work’ will end the Yellow Rivers problem? I think it’s still ongoing, don’t you?”
“Yes. But…it’s disingenuous to alarm people all the time.”
“More disingenuous than reassuring them when there’s cause for alarm?”
Noass raised a claw.
“Listen, young Drake. And I’d appreciate it if you let us speak.”
Drassi nodded tightly. The Drake collected his thoughts.
“The Yellow Rivers disease is one matter. The riots are another. Let’s tackle one at a time. Shouldn’t we report the news as it happens? The King of Destruction, the riots—these events were happening as we spoke. Sir Relz and I went out and placed ourselves in the way of danger to show people what was happening. How—how is that a problem?”
It was the [Gossip]’s turn to pause.
“It seems, Noass, that we’re conflicted on what ‘reporting the news’ means. I think you’re saying when you report on the riots or the King of Destruction that people need to know instantly what’s happening.”
“That’s correct. We’re bringing news to people at a speed unprecedented up till this moment in time. A complete revolution of communication.”
“Yes. But there’s a danger inherent in this. I think you’re not thinking of the way showing people what’s happening is dangerous.”
“Yes. Riots began across the world because people saw your coverage. Wouldn’t you agree there’s a link?”
The two Drakes exchanged a quick glance. Noass carefully sat back.
“We just report the news, Miss Drassi.”
“So there’s no responsibility on your part for how the news is reported?”
Silence. Drassi went on.
“Do healing crystals protect you from the disease? Sir Relz? Yes or no.”
“Healer Demerra has assured us it helps. That’s her prognosis as a [Healer]. Do you know what prognosis means, Miss Drassi?”
“Do I need to? Listen. Healer Demerra can say what she thinks is right. But if she’s wrong and the crystals are waste of money—isn’t that your fault as well? Do they protect you from the Yellow Rivers disease, Sir Relz? Please, answer the question.”
The Drake coughed.
“Traditionally, healing crystals do supplement potions. You see, they have known magical and medicinal properties—”
“Let’s stick to the facts, Sir Relz. Just the facts, please. It’s a yes-or-no question.”
The three Drakes paused for another agonizing moment on screen. Elena blinked. Aaron smiled.
“That’s our guy.”
He whispered to the others.
“Who is this Drake? Why do I love her?”
Cara was watching Drassi. Sir Relz was smiling hard.
“Miss Drassi, you seem to think our job is to be the font of all truths.”
“I believe it’s your job to tell the truth, yes. As best as you can. Is that so hard to do?”
“You’re being rather rude, young lady.”
“I prefer to think of it as being ‘honest’. How many people who aren’t rich can buy healing crystals to begin with?”
The [Doctor] laughed. She laughed with delight. It wasn’t possible. But—he’d done it.
The two [Commentators] were getting tetchy.
“I don’t think we need to be talked down to by a young woman half our ages, Noass. Nor do I think the audience needs to see this.”
“Please, Sir Relz. We need to know the truth! People are dying in port-cities. Those crystals don’t work! We need to do more than just slap a crystal on the problem and say it’s done!”
“Someone cut the broadcast. Switch to, switch to—”
The orb went dark. The United Nations company waited one beat, and then broke into a babble.
“No way. That can’t be Joseph. That just can’t. He didn’t—”
“Wow. That’s something.”
Idis muttered in Geneva’s head. The [Doctor] looked at the blank orb as it flickered to an advertisement. A Drake [Farmer] mopped at his brow and presented the viewers with a large beet. Pallass-grown.
Things were changing. Geneva felt it. She felt…lighter. She looked at the orb and giggled.
The sound unnerved Paige. But the [Doctor] just sat there. She thought about ‘Joseph’. And she leaned back.
“That’s why we do these things.”
She closed her eyes. Exhaled. And recalled something she’d learned in medical school. Geneva Scala sat up.
“Huh. I wonder…there’s no issue, is there?”
Paige looked at her. Geneva stood up. She glanced around.
“Kirana, can I borrow the kitchen for a moment?”
The [Housekeeper] looked astonished by the request. Geneva had never cooked a thing since coming to this world. But she agreed readily. Geneva walked into the kitchen.
Something simple. She found some eggs. Noodles…she looked around.
“Do you have any cheese?”
Paige, Siri, and Daly peeked their heads in on the kitchen, watching as Kirana assisted Geneva. But the [Doctor] did most of the work.
“What’s she making?”
The [Doctor] cracked an egg into a bowl with some pork, fat, black pepper, some cheese that was as close to parmesan as she could get…Kirana hovered around her.
“Eggs in the sauce? Not cream?”
“Are you insane?”
Geneva stared at her. She was making a carbonara, not…trash. She mixed the egg base with some pasta water and the pasta, watching cheese melt. She seasoned, tasted, and pronounced it ‘adequate.’
“I had no idea you could cook.”
Paige blinked at Geneva. The [Doctor] smiled.
“I haven’t had time to before.”
“Do you have time now?”
Geneva made a plate.
“Not at all. But I have to take some time. Here—try it.”
Paige did. Her brows rose.
“Thank you. Can someone help me take it?”
Daly seized the cooking mitts. Geneva looked at him.
The others looked confused. The [Doctor] lead the way.
“Don’t they have to eat that electrolyte water?”
“It’s important, yes. But some of them can hold their meals. They’ve not been eating more than bland food. It—might cheer them up.”
The [Doctor] led the way. She entered the clinic and Selphids, [Nurses], and more turned. Geneva put the carbonara in small bowls or plates and passed them around. The patients brightened up. Those that were well enough ate sparingly. But they had been missing taste.
“I didn’t think of it.”
Geneva Scala sat there, in her office, listening to the patients snack in a good mood and compare their favorite foods.
“Think of what, Geneva?”
Idis asked. Geneva shook her head.
“Bedside manner. I thought it was enough to just be…there’s nothing for them to do. They should have books. Entertainment. The walls are drab. That won’t improve their spirits. At least some plants. Flowers. Letters from family members.”
“Huh. But that’s not your job, is it? You don’t need to do that.”
The Selphid pointed out curiously. She felt Geneva smile.
“There’s more to being a [Doctor] than just cutting people open, Idis.”
She’d forgotten that. Now, the [Doctor] sat there. For just a minute. Then she stood.
Healer Demerra had questions for her. One of the patients was doing poorly. Someone had just broken their leg. She had a thousand and one things to do. So Geneva did them. She ran about, so much that Idis was exhausted. Then Geneva Scala went back to her room and fell asleep. Because she needed that too.
It wasn’t the penicillin. Or even ‘Joseph’ who had led to that. It was just…reassurance. The world needed help. But Geneva Scala did not stand alone.
She wanted to see Okasha and talk to her.
Erin Solstice lay on the floor. She was dead.
A Gnoll leapt on her stomach. Erin shouted and rolled over. Someone pulled Mrsha off her.
She was exhausted. She’d run about all day. Drassi confronting Sir Relz and Noass was all over the news. The two Drakes were in hot water. Wistram was considering its options.
“You did all that in a day. You, who needed coaching to sign one trade agreement.”
Maviola looked at Erin with faint admiration. She saw Erin uncurl and look up at her. The [Magical Innkeeper] shrugged.
“Well, yeah. That’s easy. Or rather—that’s what I’m good at. I don’t like contracts and negotiations. I’m better at people.”
“Each to their own, I suppose. Well done.”
“I didn’t do much. It was…the [Doctor]. Octavia. Ryoka, and Drassi. I just nudged them.”
Erin sat up. She was still smiling a bit. Weary though she was, she was satisfied. She looked past Maviola. And the [Lady] saw.
An [Alchemist], taking on more orders. Experiencing a moment in the sun.
A [Gossip], panting and having a long drink—also looking supremely angry.
The half-Elf Grand Mage, swatting at Mrsha as she tried to take his fries. She leapt—and went floating, slowly turning head-over-heels as gravity failed her. She began trying to swim past Bird. He’d fainted again.
That didn’t count. But Erin Solstice sat up and smiled.
“We’ll just have to see what happens next, won’t we? For now…”
She glanced towards the door.
Selphids had secrets. Selphids looked out for other Selphids. But friends? Also friends. If you met someone who didn’t look at you like a treacherous parasite, you did a lot for them.
Jelaqua patted Ulinde on the shoulders, supporting her. The [Spellslinger] was worn out.
“I’m fine, really. It was just so many [Messages].”
Ulinde had a headache. But her team carried her back through Pallass. They passed by a protest. Some of Pallass’ residents wanted Noass and Sir Relz off the air.
“You did good, Ulinde. We’ll keep contacting Erin if we have to. But let’s take a load off. Have some drinks. Hell of a day, huh? Earth.”
The Halfseekers nodded. Jelaqua kept her voice low. Seborn cracked his neck.
“So…what’s this other world like? We were too busy helping with the mold to ask.”
Jelaqua and Ulinde exchanged looks. After a moment, Jelaqua slapped her forehead.
“I forgot to ask with everything that came up!”
The Drowned Man crossed his arms, thinking.
“Huh. Well, if it has Humans it can’t be that weird.”
Moore politely tapped Seborn on the shoulder.
“Yes. But Erin comes from there.”
The team of four looked at each other. Jelaqua shook her head.
“We’ll ask another day. Come on, everyone. First round’s on me! Then, I have a date.”
“Watch out for Yellow Rivers.”
“Shut up, Seborn.”
[Conditions Met: Gossip → Honest Reporter Class!]
[Honest Reporter Class Obtained!]
Drassi surged up from the bar where she’d fallen asleep from angry-drinking. She looked around.
Numbtongue glanced up from his usual seat. Drassi waved her claws, trying to get her mind working as the Skills started listing themselves. She fell out of her chair.
Selphids. The two Drake [Commentator]’s coverage of the Yellow Rivers diseases had outraged other cities. More than just Wistram’s own internal Earthers were putting pressure on Noass and Sir Relz.
Zeres had lodged a formal complaint. It was bad in the city. [Healers] had been fighting the illness. And now Zeres’ High Command had ordered any vessel with Yellow Rivers to be refused entrance to the harbor.
It made things even more hectic, and Zeres was a major port city, as large as First Landing. If you wanted to trade with Humans, you went to First Landing, or so it was said. For Drakes and Gnolls, Zeres.
They’d been there a while. Long enough for money to come via the Merchant’s Guild. Long enough for Captain Lasc and the surviving [Storm Sailors] to be compensated royally.
And why not? House Kallinad had money to burn, and for a relic-class artifact, one of the Diamond Swords of Serept? They were willing to buy a fleet of ships.
Well, maybe not a fleet. But accounts were settled. All but…two.
Fetohep of Khelt wanted the other three swords. They were under guard. For the first week, Venaz, Merrik, and Peki had taken turns guarding the chest, never leaving it out of their sight. Well, the curse was also a good deterrent, but there had been…incidents.
It had taken negotiations with Zeres’ High Command to get the chest stored for the near future. When the [Strategists] left the city by sea, they’d come for it.
But not yet. Fetohep wasn’t pleased, but Feshi had to go north for the Meeting of Tribes. She would not be voyaging to Chandrar any time soon. And the others?
Venaz’ fur was uncombed. He sat there, rings around his eyes. Holding the green-diamond greatsword, prepared to use it. People still wanted his blade; the fact that it was bound to him was inconsequential.
Feshi was far more uncomfortable with her dagger, but she wore it out of necessity. Wil? His sword hung in a sheath at his waist.
“No one. The [Healers] are swamped. If the sickness is in the air—and there are none in Zeres.”
That came from Merrik. The Dwarf’s good-natured expression was also worn down. The others sat there. Wil entered, with Peki and Feshi, who’d gone with him to look again. He shook his head.
“There are no Selphid-[Healers] in Zeres. The last one died. The others moved away.”
The [Strategists] fell silent. Venaz looked around.
“The [Alchemists] can’t help either?”
“I asked. There’s famous ones in Pallass, but one of them—Xif—claims he doesn’t know poisons. And Saliss of Lights is a combat-[Alchemist].”
The [Strategists] clustered around. Their room—the one they were in—was silent. Not as silent as the grave, though. Beneath the hum of their voices, in the moments of pained silence—there was a sound.
And one last [Strategist] was with them. Yerranola’s body was gone. Out of necessity; it had been poisoned badly. And there were few…uninfected…bodies in Zeres these days, even if Drakes hadn’t been wary of selling bodies.
But even if they’d had a pristine one, the Selphid couldn’t have used it. She sat on the table.
In a jar. It was glass, but not empty; a fluid held her. Her people had advised Wil on how to make that, at least. The Selphid was held in it. But not at rest. When Venaz’ words failed to elicit a response, they could hear it.
A shrill sound, not like a voice. Bubbling through the solution.
A scream. Wil covered his ears. He hadn’t slept or rested. They’d tried everything.
“We need to find an antidote. Oteslia.”
“We won’t make it. She doesn’t have long left.”
The [Healers] and [Alchemists] had done their best. But the blowfish poison was eating away at their friend, for all she’d been nicked. Selphids were too small. Their bodies—in this jar, Wil saw a shifting mix of colors. An oozing form.
But it was still Yerra. He crouched down. Feshi put a paw on his shoulders.
“We have to try. She can’t die.”
“She will not. If it’s Oteslia—we go. As fast as we can, without—disturbing Yerranola.”
“There’s a bounty on our heads. That Drowned Captain wants the blades.”
Feshi pointed out quietly. Merrik clenched one hand.
“They can try to get it. We’re not done yet. Come on. Let’s make preparations. To Oteslia! Hear that, your Majesty? We’ll leave the swords here if you want. But we’re going. Our friend comes first.”
The [Strategists] turned. And the figure of sand, the king in death, stood there.
Fetohep of Khelt. His deathly gaze swept across the room. Towards Wil, Feshi, Peki, Merrik, Venaz—and then Yerranola.
“That is your will? You will go, despite my demand to return the blades to my personage?”
He inquired politely. It was a…disarmingly soft question. Fetohep was not in a good mood. Trey Atwood had left and he was nowhere to be found. The King of Khelt waited. Wil Kallinad bowed.
“We will arrange transport for the blades if you demand it, King Fetohep. But if it comes to them or the life of our friend—we cannot spare the trip to Chandrar. We must go.”
“I see. Well then.”
Fetohep stepped forwards. Venaz’s hands touched the hilt of his sword. Warily. Fetohep stared back at the Selphid in agony. He looked at the [Strategists] and nodded.
“Well said. Take your friend. Time matters little to me anyways. Had you abandoned her—you would not be worthy of the blades.”
He waved a hand and vanished. Wil exhaled. The King of Khelt settled back on his throne. Adventures and legends. He sat there, chuckling to himself. Wil looked at the others, and then picked up Yerranola. Gently, but she screamed nevertheless. He held her to his chest, warming the jar.
“Hold on, Yerra. We’re going to save you. Hold on. Please.”
Author’s Note: The theme of this chapter was Selphids. I’m, not sure if that was obvious. However, I hope you enjoyed it. And this was short…er! 22,000 words is respectable, right? Right?
Anyways. It’s another chapter in the day of the life. Where…some big things happened, if we’re honest. Plotlines are meeting. In time…well, we’ll see.
Also, if you didn’t see, there’s a free sample of Volume 2’s audiobook! Check it out at the top!
For now, I’ll leave you with some wonderful art. The-O-Endless has done a horrific pixel-Creler, Anito has done a topical Moore and other art, and Sarina has done a lot of profiles! Give them all lots of appreciation! Have a good night and thanks for reading!
The adventure continues.
Pixel Creler by The-O-Endless!
Moore, fae, hot tubs and more by Anito!
Portraits by Sarinia!